The Chartist Movement/Chapter 15
FALSE DOCTRINE, HERESY, AND SCHISM
(1) O'Connor's Breach with Lovett (1841)
Whilst striving, with energy and success, to establish his supremacy over the National Charter Association, O'Connor was carrying on a vigorous campaign against all rival and parallel organisations within the Chartist world. In this warfare he had the enthusiastic and unquestioning support of the great mass of the members of the Association, who were anxious above all to avoid the schisms and disunion which had been so devastating in 1839. Even allies were not tolerated if they aspired to independence; there must be one army and one leader. Thus the personal desires of O'Connor and the intolerant notions of his followers worked together for the same ends.
The first rival scheme to come under O'Connor's ban was the National Association for Promoting the Improvement of the People, which, as we have seen, was being inaugurated by Lovett and Collins. The opposition between Lovett and O'Connor was the opposition of two completely different personalities. Lovett was a thin, delicate, nervous, retiring, serious, and ascetic man to whom life was a tragedy, made bearable only by self-abnegation and devotion to the welfare of others. O'Connor was a great, burly, bouncing, hail-fellow-well-met, to whom the essence of life was political agitation, involving crowds, excitement, applause, and authority, the end and purpose of the agitation being but secondary. The two were totally incompatible. Lovett lacked the saving grace of a sense of humour, and O'Connor jarred on him, whilst to O'Connor the intellectual and moral purposes of Lovett were foreign and unintelligible. All these things were against any hearty co-operation from the very beginning. Lovett detested the personal ascendancy of O'Connor; it was against his principles. He also suspected O'Connor's sincerity in the people's cause. O'Connor no doubt returned these feelings with interest. He took no further notice of Lovett and Collins when they were incarcerated, and their appeals for better treatment in prison were totally ignored by the Northern Star, which found space for many columns of O'Connor's whinings. Lovett fell into an intense detestation of the great Northern demagogue, and from the moment of his release nothing could induce him to bury his resentment and co-operate with the National Charter Association. Lovett carried with him many sincere and able men, but they were officers without companies. The rank and file marched with the Irishman, whose controversial methods may be gauged from the following.
Even before Lovett's new Association had been launched these incompatibilities were threatening Chartism with a new schism. Lovett was designing his National Association to supplement rather than to supersede the National Charter Association. But as the latter fell more and more under O'Connor's control, Lovett's refusal to work with it had the inevitable consequence of suggesting that he was dividing the Chartist forces at a moment when unity was especially necessary. O'Connor took full advantage of his enemy's mistake and attacked him and his friends with unrestrained violence. The onslaught began with an article, written by O'Connor, in July 1840, denouncing the refusal of the London Radicals; to take part in the Manchester delegate meeting, a refusal, dictated partly by lack of funds, which was afterwards rescinded. The worst enemies of the suffering multitudes, says O'Connor, are the better-paid members of their own order. "Of all parts of the kingdom the masses have least to expect from the leaders of popular opinion in the Metropolis. The fustian jackets, the unshorn chins, and the blistered hands are as good there as here, but the mouthpieces which undertake to represent them appertain, generally speaking, to an altogether different class." A week later O'Connor tersely declared that "London is rotten." This particular article contains one of the earliest references to the Land Scheme of the future, a scheme which was more alien than ever to Lovett's Chartism. In this fashion was O'Connor leading Chartism away from the original ideas of its founders, among whom he could in no wise claim to be. Not content with O'Brien's denunciation of the middle class, he still further narrowed the appeal of Chartism by his denunciation of the higher ranks of the working class. The great working-class party which Lovett conceived of, and still more the possible co-operation of the more liberal of the middle classes, became more and more impossible of realisation. The truth was that for really intelligent working men O'Connor had no appeal. Hence his dislike of London and his preference for the factory and handloom-weaving areas.
These attacks upon Lovett provoked a reply from W. G. Burns, who averred with some asperity that "so long as Feargus O'Connor connects himself with any agitation, the object of which is to benefit the masses, that benefit will never be enjoyed, and he does not wish they should enjoy it."
Soon afterwards Lovett's book Chartism appeared, and was very loudly praised by the more sympathetic London press. The Northern Star contented itself with sarcastic comments. When, however, in March 1841 the "Address of the National Association to the Political and Social Reformers of the United Kingdom" was published, the storm of obloquy broke. This Address was circulated throughout the Chartist world. It set forth the objects of the National Association, as already described in Chartism, and it was accompanied by a dissertation in the true Lovett style.
In addressing you as fellow-labourers in the great cause of human liberty, we would wish to rivet this great truth upon your mind: you must become your own social and political regenerators or you will never enjoy freedom. For true liberty cannot be conferred by Acts of Parliament or by decrees of princes, but must spring up from the knowledge, morality, and public virtue of our population. … If therefore you would escape your present social and political bondage and benefit your race, you must bestir yourselves and make every sacrifice to build up the sacred temple of your own liberties. …
Tracing most of our social grievances to class legislation, we have proposed a political reform upon the principles of the People's Charter. … Believing it to have truth for its basis and the happiness of all for its end, we conceive that it needs not the violence of passion, the bitterness of party spirit, nor the arms of aggressive warfare for its support: its principles need only to be unfolded to be appreciated and being appreciated by the majority will be established in peace.
But while we would implore you to direct your undivided attention to the attainment of that just political measure, we would urge you to make your agitation in favour of it more efficient and productive of social benefit than it has been hitherto. We have wasted glorious means of usefulness in foolish displays and gaudy trappings, seeking to captivate the sense rather than inform the mind, and apeing the proceedings of a tinselled and corrupt aristocracy rather than aspiring to the mental and moral dignity of a pure democracy. Our public meetings have on too many occasions been arenas of passionate invective, party spirit, and personal idolatry … rather than schools for the advancement of our glorious cause by the dissemination of facts and the inculcation of principles.
This last paragraph is in every way worthy of attention. It is a splendid utterance of an idealist of democracy. Nor is its praise of "the mental and moral dignity of a pure democracy" more remarkable than the attitude Lovett betrays towards agitation. It is the agitation itself, not the attainment of the Charter, which will bring freedom. But this agitation must be far different from that which has hitherto been conducted; it must be based upon education, self-sacrifice, self-activity, not upon wild talk of insurrection, arms, and violence, leading to cowardly desertions and imprisonments. In Lovett's mind the Charter has ceased to be a bill to be introduced into Parliament, but has become a democratic ideal which will realise itself through the strivings of the people for self-culture. Chartism is the organisation of an enlightened people; with class-war, land schemes, conventions, petitions, and Parliaments it has simply nothing to do. It is in the hearts and minds of the people, which, when they are properly attuned one to the other, will produce the mighty song of freedom.
On April 17 there appeared the Northern Star's reply to this address. It took umbrage at the references to "gaudy trappings," and made the inevitable reply "as to personal idolatry, we shall only add in addition to what has already been said 'sour grapes.'" It denounced the notion of forming a separate association. Were the "six" who were responsible for the new Association more entitled to public confidence than the Executive of the National Charter Association? Was the London move not in fact a scheme of O'Connell, Roebuck, and Hume to split the Chartist body and gain over a part to Household Suffrage? Had not Roebuck pronounced the National Charter Association illegal?
O'Connor through his deputy, Hill, now proceeded to pour scorn upon Lovett's educational scheme.
Will some good fellow furnish us next week with an appropriate dialogue between one of the architects laying the foundation stone of the first Hall—the new Temple of Liberty—and a handloom weaver with nine children awaiting its completion as a means of relief?
How would O'Connor use the quarter of a million annually raised under the scheme? He would subsidise a hundred "independent" members of Parliament at £1500 a year each; a Parliamentary committee at £1750 a year; one hundred missionaries at one hundred pounds a year each; and a balance of £74,730 would still be available for other purposes.
Now what would our friends think of such an appropriation clause, the enactment of which would, we fancy, put us in less than two years in joint possession of all the Town Halls, Science Halls, Union Halls, Normal and Industrial Schools, Libraries, Parks Pleasure Grounds, Public Baths, Buildings and Places of Amusement in the kingdom, ready built, furnished, stocked, and raised to our hands?
The writer of the article alleged that it would be perfectly easy to buy dozens of members of Parliament at the price offered. This from an enemy of "corrupt" legislation!
Hill wrote the article, he tells us, with great pain. It was evident that those who had signed their names to the document had been deceived, and he adjured these misguided friends to confess their error and "manfully to ask pardon." "But should it be otherwise and should the sword be drawn, why then, we throw away the scabbard."
This is a fair sample of this journal's controversial style. The generally low tone, allegations of treachery, sowing of suspicion, bludgeon-like satire, and the mixture of cozening and threats are thoroughly typical. It was unfortunately all too effective. The very next week a number of letters and resolutions appeared in the Northern Star from various persons and societies begging pardon, or echoing the Star's denunciations. Lovett had certainly not erred on the side of tact in his method of propagating his new scheme. He sent copies of his address to various Chartist leaders in person, selecting of course those likely to be favourable or those whom he knew. They were requested to sign if they approved and return it to Lovett, who thereupon published the address with their signatures under the title of the National Association. Thus many members of the National Charter Association found themselves approving of another body which was now pronounced to be a secret Whig-Radical dodge to smash the Chartist body. But even though Lovett had been a little sharp in his dealings, the tone of some of the recantations was sufficiently disgusting. They were collectively described by the Star as "rats escaping from the trap," and the National Association became the "new move." The "new move" was described as "the selfish and humbugging scheme of Lovett and Co." who were "a Malthusian clique," "milk-and-water patriots" into whose eyes gold-dust had been thrown. One resolution spoke of the "base, cowardly, and unjustifiable conduct of the unprincipled leaders of the new move in their continued efforts to heap odium and discredit upon that tried man of principle and unceasing advocate of the people's rights, Feargus O'Connor, Esq." Leach at Manchester solemnly burned a presentation portrait of Collins. In towns where one single Chartist had signed the document the whole body of Chartists there hastened to dissociate themselves from him and it, as if from a fatal contagion. Some who recanted explained that they had never read the document but took the signatures as a sufficient guarantee. McCrae, Craig's successor in Ayrshire, begged his country to forgive him for signing. George Rogers, the bold tobacconist of 1839, actually alleged that his signature was used without his consent, and the Northern Star hinted that there might be others similarly deceived. A very curious sample of recantation is furnished by the Trowbridge Chartists, once the favourite henchmen of Vincent and his physical force notions. After sending to the paper a very temperate remonstrance on the subject of its invective and mischief-making, they nullified this by sending a letter immediately afterwards, in which they withdrew all their charges and roundly denounced Lovett's scheme as a Whig plot. It would be interesting to know what wires were pulled to produce these contradictory results. Week after week the campaign went on. The more the respectable newspapers praised Lovett's address, the more the Northern Star denounced it. It was "a new mode of canvassing for support for Mechanics' Institutes, and the Brougham system of making one portion of the working classes disgusted with all below them." Lovett replied to these attacks, but in the nature of things his arguments could have little effect. Not all those who signed the address were cowardly enough to desert. Vincent and Philp claimed to be at once members of the National Association and of the National Charter Association. They were powerful in the Bath area, and special measures had to be taken by O'Connor and his followers to eliminate them. Vincent boldly defended his position, while Cleave, Hetherington, and Neesom engaged in fierce controversy with O'Connor and Rider. It must be confessed, however, that the victory rested with the large battalions. Lovett found no general support amongst the Chartist ranks. He was compelled more and more to seek middle-class support, and outside London he gained few adherents. His Association became a society of political and educational virtuosi. It was among other things an avowed supporter of the enfranchisement of women, a policy which alone sufficed to put it out of the pale of practical politics. So the leaven of idealism was ejected from the Chartist mass.
(2) The Elimination of O'Brien (1841–1842)
O'Brien was also to be eliminated. For years he had been regarded as the friend and mentor of Feargus O'Connor, who had bestowed upon him the title by which he became honourably remembered, "the Chartist Schoolmaster." His articles in the Northern Star during 1838 had done not a little both for Chartist theory and for the reputation of that journal. In the Convention of 1839 O'Brien and O'Connor were generally faithful allies, but it is probable that the seeds of disagreement were already sown. O'Brien seems to have been as devoid of business acumen as O'Connor was rich in it. None of his independent journalistic ventures were successes. His personal habits seem to have been very irregular. He was a somewhat cranky, uncertain-tempered individual, impatient of restraint—in short, a man whose intellectual genius was crippled by unfavourable circumstances, and whose temper was fretted by troubles which ensued from instability of will and conduct. He was reckless always, especially in money-affairs, inclined to fits of moroseness, occasionally gloomy and splenetic, a difficult character indeed. Financial difficulties seem to have put him into O'Connor's hands, a situation which O'Brien's temper could ill brook. O'Brien further conceived that O'Connor had behaved treacherously to him on the occasion of his trial in April 1840. For eighteen months O'Brien was incarcerated at Lancaster. Towards the end of his imprisonment he was able to contribute to the pages of the Star, so that the breach was by no means complete. The newspaper had every reason to desire a continuation of the connection with so able a writer, and one upon whose authority its anti-middle-class teaching was largely based. In April 1841 an article appeared which showed that O'Brien's views on this point were undergoing a significant change. He put forward the thesis that the enormous political power of the middle class is as nothing compared with their social power. In fact political power is a consequence of the social power, which is derived from wealth, position, and social functions. Clearly O'Brien was turning his former teaching upside down. He had hitherto taught that the power of legislation was the basis of social power, and the instrument of social improvement.
This reversal was too sudden for O'Brien himself, and he began to hedge a little. He succeeded after all in coming to the conclusion that the middle class was still the most implacable enemy of the working class, but he was clearly wobbling. The statement that the Reform Act of 1832 was a consequence of the social influence of the middle class, paved the way for the co-operation with part of that class, a policy which O'Brien advocated in 1842, as a means of gaining another and greater Reform Act.
Thus O'Brien, like Lovett, was drifting from the old Chartist moorings now occupied by the National Charter Association. In the summer of 1841 came the General Election which returned Peel to power and began the great financial revolution which ended in the Repeal of the Corn Laws. The Chartists were much agitated by the question as to what policy they ought to pursue in the party conflict. Some time previously they had endorsed the suggestion of O'Brien that Chartists should help neither party, but that Chartist candidates should be put forward at each nomination and carried at the hustings on the show of hands. But on May 29 and June 19, 1841, O'Connor came along with the advice to Chartists to support the Tories rather than the Whigs in the actual polling. On this O'Brien joined issue with his wonted vehemence. Unless, he said, fifty real Chartists are elected to the House of Commons or two or three hundred, elected by show of hands, are summoned to a great national council, there would be a bloody revolution. Such a council would be a means of rescuing the people from desperate courses. How, it is not clear. O'Brien denounced O'Connor's advice to vote Tory as madness. It would mean the annihilation of Chartism if the Tories were returned. He further objected to O'Connor's habit of assuming to speak for the whole Chartist body, and of regarding his (O'Brien's) views as those of an individual. He said that O'Connor's paper ought to have been moving in the election campaign three months before, instead of coming with its Chartist-Toryism at the last moment. O'Connor replied that he was advocating election plans as early as 1835 and referred to an article of September 1839 on the subject. He defended his advice. If, he said, the Whigs were re-elected they would have another seven years in which to exercise their callousness. The Tories were bound to be weaker than the Whigs, so that the latter would not be badly defeated, but adversity would tame them into accepting the alliance of the Chartists in future. O'Brien replied that O'Connor had favoured him with eight columns, when half a column would have said enough to show him that O'Connor would never convince him that it was right for Chartists to vote Tory. In controversy O'Brien was more than a match for his opponent.
In the ensuing election, neither O'Connor nor O'Brien seems to have carried the day with the Chartists. Certainly the Tories won, and it is possible that Anti-Poor Law feeling, which was at the bottom of a good deal of Chartism, induced many Chartists to go with the Tories. It certainly was so at Leicester, as Cooper relates. So far O'Connor's advice was the feeling of a great part of the Chartists. The Salford Chartists on the other hand, after careful consideration, decided to support Brotherton, a prominent Anti-Corn Law man, who, perhaps through their support, secured his election. It is clear that cross-currents of opinion were already influencing Chartist policy. At Northampton the intervention of MacDouall, who went to the poll, actually prevented the return of a Tory.
O'Brien himself stood for Newcastle-on-Tyne. His election address is perhaps the first ever written in a prison. It is worth quoting. The candidate calls himself a "Conservative Radical Reformer in the just and obvious meaning of the words." He advocates unqualified obedience to the laws even where they are bad and vicious, so long as the people have an opportunity of altering them in accordance with the will of the majority. He stands for the inviolability of all property, both public and private, but amongst public property he includes church rates, public endowments, and unappropriated colonial lands which the aristocracy are appropriating just as they seized the land of this country. He also considers that the State has a right to interfere with private property where the public weal is at stake, but compensation ought to be given in just measure. He will oppose all monopolies, whether of wealth, power, or knowledge. He will therefore oppose the Bank of England monopoly and take away from the other banks the right to issue notes. A really National Bank under public control would be substituted if he had his way. He will equally oppose all restrictions upon trade, commerce, and industry, especially the Corn Laws, which, with the concentration of landed property through enclosure, are the chief causes of the present distress. He will vote for total and immediate repeal, provided that there is an equitable readjustment of public and private obligations in accordance with the increased purchasing power of money. He will demand the abolition of all further restrictions upon the Press, the disestablishment and disendowment of the Church of England, the adoption of a system of direct taxation of property, the reduction of indirect taxation, and the exclusion of placemen of every description from the House of Commons.
With the exception of a few words this address might have been written by Cobbett. It was a good and sensible document, but it was scarcely a distinctively Chartist pronouncement at all. It only had one reference to the Charter, for O'Brien no doubt wanted to appeal to a wider public than the Chartists of Newcastle. Not many election addresses, issued in that election, one ventures to think, contained as much good sense as the one composed in Lancaster Gaol. It shows, however, how much O'Brien was drifting from the somewhat Ishmaelite standpoint of O'Connorite Chartism.
The Newcastle Election gave rise to a curious legal point. O'Brien and two other candidates stood for two seats. Though absent, O'Brien carried the day on the show of hands; he did not go to the poll, and the other two were declared elected. O'Brien's committee decided to petition on the ground that the two had been elected neither by show of hands nor by the poll. Counsel actually thought O'Brien was the person elected, though, of course, he had not the requisite financial qualification. The cost of petitioning was, however, prohibitive and no further steps were taken. It stirs the imagination to think of O'Brien in the Corn Law debates. How he would have laid about him!
O'Brien was to be released in October 1841. His popularity was still great in the Chartist world, and a movement was at once set on foot to give him a great ovation, and to raise a fund to enable him to start a newspaper. He refused the demonstrations; they would cost money; working men would lose employment and wages by attending. Let Chartists give O'Connor an expensive ovation if they liked. The "press fund," however, went on with the result that O'Brien became part owner and editor of the British Statesman, a Radical weekly which started in March 1842. The Statesman was at first largely an Anti-Corn Law journal, but O'Brien gave it a somewhat different complexion. It was never a Chartist paper in the O'Connorite sense. Like all the rest of O'Brien's ventures, it died an untimely death. In the latter months of 1841 O'Brien was still very active as lecturer and agitator, but in the early part of 1842 events occurred which brought to a head the various enmities and rivalries which the policy or person of O'Connor had aroused.
(3) The Complete Suffrage Movement (1842)
In 1842 the focus of Chartist interest once more shifted to Birmingham, which, since the riots of July 1839 had not figured very prominently in Chartist affairs. The Chartists of that town were divided in allegiance between Arthur O'Neill and the official leaders, like George White, a Northern Star reporter, and John Mason, whose eloquence had helped to convert Cooper at Leicester. The old Birmingham Political Union was of course dead and buried in oblivion. A "Birmingham Association for Promoting the General Welfare," with T. C. Salt for a chairman, was in existence in October 1841, but no more seems to be known about it than the notice recorded by Place. In 1842, however, Birmingham was the centre of a movement which at first bade fair to carry Chartist or Radical principles into regions which O'Connor never knew, a movement in fact which carried no less a person than Herbert Spencer in its train.
This was the Complete Suffrage Movement. It was a kind of middle-class Chartism. There are two distinct aspects to Chartism as generally conceived down to 1840, and as conceived after that date by the National Charter Association. On the one hand, it is an agitation for the traditional Radical Programme; on the other, it is a violent and vehement protest from men, rendered desperate by poverty and brutalised by excessive labour, ignorance, and foul surroundings, against the situation in life in which they found themselves placed. This protesting attitude had been brought, by the teachings of leaders and the prosecutions of authority, to a pitch of bitterness hardly now conceivable. In this second aspect alone was Chartism an exclusively working-class affair, and in this respect alone could there be no middle-class Chartism, for such a thing would be a contradiction in terms. At the same time there was nothing to prevent middle-class people from supporting the principles of the Charter (which had successively been favoured by every social class from the Duke of Richmond to Richard Pilling, cotton operative), or to prevent them from sympathising, in the name of humanity, with the sufferings of the working folk. Such middle-class sympathisers, however, found it difficult, in the year of grace 1842, to give their opinions practical expression. They found the field of political and social reform agitations more than comfortably occupied. On the radical side there were the Anti-Corn Law League and the various Chartist organisations; on the conservative side Factory Legislation and Repeal of the Poor Law of 1834 were still the stand-by of social reformers. For Radicals the claims of the League or of Chartism were naturally paramount, but between the two there was a great gulf fixed. However much they sympathised with Chartism, middle-class leaders could scarcely hope to find any great following amongst their own class for the Chartist programme. Preoccupation with Free Trade, the class-war teachings of some Chartists, and the futile excuses of others, prevented that. Nor could middle-class leaders find a place within the National Charter Association. The predominance of O'Connor prevented that, except they were prepared to occupy a very subordinate position.
The Complete Suffrage Movement was a well-meant, ill-conceived, but not wholly unsuccessful attempt to solve this difficulty. Its author was Joseph Sturge (1793–1859), a Quaker corn-miller and alderman of Birmingham, a zealous and prominent anti-slavery advocate, and now an adherent of the Free Trade Movement. Sturge was a typical Quaker, honest, upright, and benevolent. Prosperity in business had not blinded his eyes to the distress and poverty of thousands of his fellow-citizens, and it was this which moved him along the path of political agitation. Sturge was hardly a deep-thinking man and, being a little pig-headed and hasty-tempered, had few special gifts for dealing with men more addicted than he to disputations and contentions. Rectitude and sympathy were his qualifications for leadership, and though they carried him far, it was not far enough.
Sturge, like many other Quakers and Radicals, had taken a part in the work of the Anti-Corn Law League, but he had apparently come to the conclusion that the Repeal of the Corn Laws could never be attained, "except by first securing to the people, a full, fair, and free representation in the British House of Commons." He had also, as a true Quaker, been much disturbed by the growing alienation between the middle and the working classes, which he traced, like the Chartists, to the evils of class legislation. During 1841 he published in the Nonconformist, which periodical became the organ of the Complete Suffrage Movement, a series of articles afterwards reissued under the title "Reconciliation between the Middle and Working Classes." This reconciliation was to be accomplished by a combined agitation for "full, fair, and free" representation of the people in Parliament. In recommending the "Reconciliation" to his readers Sturge writes: "The Patriot and the Christian fail in the discharge of their duty, if they do not by all peaceable and legitimate means strive to remove the enormous evil of class legislation. … I earnestly recommend these conclusions to the candid and impartial consideration of those who wish to be guided in their political as well as religious conduct by the precepts of the Gospel." Sturge's political ideas were, therefore, very much like the Christian Chartism which flourished at Birmingham. He entirely adopted the Chartist point of view with regard to the Free Trade agitation. Though many other middle-class people adopted the class-legislation theory, they did not apply it in the same way as Sturge did.
The Complete Suffrage Movement originated at an Anti-Corn Law Convention, held in Manchester on November 17, 1841. The delegates had met and the main business of the Convention was over, when Sturge commenced an informal talk about the "essentially unsound condition of our present parliamentary representation." The other delegates expressed their agreement with these sentiments, and requested Sturge and Sharman Crawford, M.P., to draw up some sort of a manifesto on the subject. This was done, and a number of the delegates, including a majority of the Manchester Council of the Anti-Corn Law League, put their signatures to the document, which became widely known as the "Sturge Declaration." In December the Declaration was printed and circulated, mainly amongst middle-class Radicals, and in January 1842 a number of the Birmingham signatories united under the name of the Birmingham Complete Suffrage Union. This body, following the lines laid down by Sturge in the "Reconciliation," decided to appeal to the industrious classes. This was done by circulating the Declaration and inviting signatures from those who approved. The Declaration reads thus:
Deeply impressed with the conviction of the evils arising from class legislation and of the sufferings thereby inflicted upon our industrious fellow subjects, the undersigned affirm that a large majority of the people of this country are unjustly excluded from that full, fair and free exercise of the elective franchise to which they are entitled by the great principle of Christian equity and also by the British Constitution, "for no subject of England can be constrained to pay any aids or taxes, even for the defence of the realm or the support of the Government, but such as are imposed by his own consent or that of his representatives in Parliament."Signatories were also asked to express their approval of a motion upon the subject to be introduced into the House of Commons by Sharman Crawford. Approval of the Declaration carried the right to be invited, either in person or by delegacy to a Conference at Birmingham where the question of future proceedings was to be discussed.
Such was the origin of the Complete Suffrage Movement. It progressed rapidly for it had very influential support, especially from philanthropically disposed men like Sturge himself. Benevolence and peace-making were in fact the chief motives which drove Sturge into the agitation, and the character which he gave to the movement attracted ministers of religion, especially those of the Dissenting Churches. The newly founded Nonconformist, ably edited by Edward Miall, became the organ of the movement. Josiah Child of Bungay, a clerical rebel of some note, Scottish theologians like John Ritchie and James Adam, Unitarian ministers like James Mills of Oldham, Quakers like John Bright and others, betray the Radical Nonconformity which was at the bottom of a great deal of English political agitation. Even the Anglican clergy who sympathised with the movement, such as the Rev. Thomas Spencer, incumbent of Hinton Charterhouse, near Bath, uncle of Herbert Spencer, the Synthetic Philosopher, and the advanced Radical, Dr. Wade, vicar of Warwick, with whom we have made acquaintance already, had very much of the Nonconformist in them. Complete Suffrage Unions were rapidly started in every important town, and by the end of March 1842 some fifty or sixty were in course of formation; places as far apart as Aberdeen and Plymouth being included in the list.
What the connection between the Free Traders and the Complete Suffrage Movement exactly was, is difficult to say. Certainly between the League and the Sturge unions there was no connection of an official kind. Nor was the Sturge movement an outgrowth of the Free Trade agitation; it had an independent origin in the mixture of philanthropy and Radical theory which was not uncommon in those days. Sturge himself was of opinion that the Free Trade movement was likely to be futile in view of the existing state of Parliamentary representation, but there is little or no evidence that his middle-class followers shared this view. The Complete Suffrage Movement did receive the support of large numbers of Corn Law Repealers, and even of men actively engaged in the work of the League—men like John Bright, Charles Cobden, Archibald Prentice, ex-Chartist and later historian of the League, and Francis Place, who placed his vast stores of political wisdom at the disposal of Free Traders and Sturgeites alike. These men were all Radicals and supported Sturge because they were Radicals, though it is not too much to suppose that many of the rank and file of the Free Traders were not sorry to have a kind of second string in the Radical movement initiated by Sturge. The Complete Suffrage leaders acted totally independently of the Free Trade movement, and if they sought support, they sought it on the common basis of radical beliefs. When they began to recruit working-class support, it was on the same basis. In short, the Complete Suffrage Movement was an honest attempt to organise a single Radical body without distinction of class or interest. The suspicions of the Chartists that it was a dodge of the League to draw off support from Chartism were quite unfounded.
The appeal of the Complete Suffrage Union to the working classes was answered almost exclusively by those Chartists who, for various reasons, were at loggerheads with O'Connor and his friends. Lovett saw in the Declaration an opportunity for that co-operation of all classes which he so much desired, and he no doubt looked forward to a revival of the agitation for the Charter upon the idealistic lines laid down in Chartism. O'Brien also began to sympathise with the Sturge movement, but his motives are less easy to discover; pique and a growing personal dislike for O'Connor were probably the chief. O'Brien could not stand the patronage of one so inferior to himself. He found allies in the Bath Chartists, and their exceptionally able leaders, R. K. Philp, Henry Vincent, and W. P. Roberts, all of whom were rapidly falling away from their allegiance to the National Charter Association, no doubt for the same reason which made it impossible for any man of independence and spirit to tolerate for long the yoke of O'Connor. The Christian Chartists, to whom Sturge and his pietist ways appealed strongly, rallied round the new movement. Arthur O'Neill, John Collins, Robert Lowery, R. J. Richardson, and Patrick Brewster, a bitter opponent of O'Connor, fell into line with Lovett, Vincent, O'Brien, and Collins. Thus the Sturge movement was rapidly becoming a rallying-ground for all the ablest anti-O'Connorite Chartists. A goodly proportion of the moral force leaders of the 1839 Convention were now arrayed under the banner of "Reconciliation." The forthcoming Conference was likely much more to resemble a great Chartist Convention than any of the assemblies which the National Charter Association could muster.
This was a prospect which O'Connor and his followers could hardly face with equanimity, and a strenuous counter-campaign was at once organised. The first steps were taken against those members of the National Charter Association who were suspected of sympathising with the rival movement. Of these R. K. Philp and James Williams of Sunderland were the chief. Philp was actually a member of the Executive and Williams was a very able and influential leader in his district. The attack on Philp was carried on with unparalleled virulence. His speeches were falsified, resolutions garbled, letters of denunciation were printed, and letters of defence suppressed, in the pages of the Northern Star. No effort was spared to make Philp appear a traitor and a schismatic, and all the arrangements which a well-devised Tammany system could invent were put into operation, with a view to securing his rejection at the next election of the Executive. Philp, however, was scarcely happy in his defence. He said he had only signed the Declaration so as to have an opportunity of persuading the Complete Suffrage leaders to accept the Charter—an explanation which was scarcely satisfactory to either side. The excommunication of Philp brought about a great schism in the Bath district, and the Chartists of Wootton-under-Edge actually elected O'Brien to sit in the coming Conference at Birmingham. In Sunderland Williams showed fight and disregarded O'Connor's threats. He declared that he had signed the Declaration because he approved of its vindication of the people's right to the franchise. If O'Connor wanted to denounce him, Williams was ready to take up his challenge.
The next step was to attack the Sturge movement in set terms. It was a dodge of the Anti-Corn Law League, and the Chartist cause was doomed to be lost if it was in any manner mixed up with that of the League. Complete Suffrage was denounced because it apparently did not involve the other five "points" of the Radical Programme, and a comparison was drawn between the "Charter Suffrage" and Complete Suffrage.
The Charter Suffrage would not rob any man while it would protect and enrich all: while Complete Suffrage would merely tantalise you with the possession of a thing you could not use, and would entirely prostrate labour to capital and speculation. The Charter Suffrage would, firstly, more than treble our production now locked up, restricted, and narrowed, while it would cause a more equitable distribution of the increased production. Complete Suffrage would not increase the production while it would monopolise all that was produced. Repeal of the Corn Laws without the Charter would make one great hell of England, and would only benefit steam producers, merchants, and bankers without giving the slightest impetus to any trade, save the trade of slavery, while it would from the consequent improvement and multiplication of machinery, break every shopkeeper and starve one half of our population. On the other hand the Charter would in less than six months from the date of its enactment, call forth all the industry, energy, and power of every class in the State.
This was followed by an article from O'Connor who denounced Complete Suffrage as "Complete Humbug," and said that Sturge, being a banker and corn-merchant, was striving, for interested reasons, to draw Chartists into the Anti-Corn Law Movement. Nothing could have been more unjust or untrue than this charge.
Meanwhile the plans for the Conference at Birmingham were being elaborated, and it was fixed for April 5 and the following days. O'Connor thereupon ordered a meeting of delegates and others at the same place and on the same days. Every delegate was to bring with him as much money as his constituents could collect. The delegates were apparently to sit as long as the money lasted.
Thus on April 5, 1842, two rival conferences met at Birmingham. The Complete Suffrage Conference consisted of 103 members. The majority of these were representatives of the middle-class supporters of the movement, but the workers were represented by Vincent, Lovett, O'Brien, Neesom, John Collins, James Mills, Robert Lowery, R. J. Richardson, and Dr. Wade, all ex-members of the 1839 Convention. Besides Vincent, the Bath Chartists had a champion in the Rev. Thomas Spencer. Miall, Bright, and Prentice were present. The National Association was represented also by J. H. Parry, a barrister of great ability and a pungent controversialist.
The proceedings commenced with the usual formalities. Sturge was elected to the Chair. A committee was appointed to examine the credentials of delegates. Parry and Vincent were on this committee, which rejected the credentials of several adherents of O'Connor who tried to obtain admission. Five avowed, but apparently not extremist, members of the National Charter Association were actually admitted. How they came to escape the censure and earn the adulation of O'Connor is a mystery, but such was the fact. Various other formalities were despatched, and the real proceedings commenced with the presentation of the report of the Birmingham Complete Suffrage Union.
The important proceedings took a rather significant course. Down to the Conference, no specific statement of the nature of the political programme involved in Complete Suffrage had ever been issued. It is very probable, judging from the discussions in the Conference, that the originators of the movement were not prepared to adopt as complete a scheme as the Chartists. Some "modified Charter" was probably what they had in view. The Chartists present had evidently come with the express intention of moving the adoption of the Charter in toto, and they placed a motion to that effect, in Lovett's name, upon the order paper. So far Philp's declaration was supported by fact. The result was surprising. One after another the six points of Chartism were carried. All attempts to cut away anything from the abstract completeness of the Radical Programme failed. The original resolution, making representation coextensive with taxation, was abandoned in favour of one basing the franchise on natural, original, or inherent right. A resolution in favour of freedom of elections was displaced in favour of an explicit demand for the ballot. Bright's preference for Triennial Parliaments was shared by a small minority only of the delegates. There was an inordinate passion for unanimity until the delegates found themselves committed to the Charter in all except name and associations. Sturge was by no means pleased with the result of the discussions. He thought the first four points carried ought to be sufficient, but he hoped for the best. He disliked the Charter because of its association with violence and terrorism. Nevertheless Lovett brought forward his motion in favour of the adoption of the Charter. It merely pledged the Complete Suffrage leaders to call a second Conference, in which there would be more working-class delegates, at which the Charter would at least be taken into consideration. He made a good speech, urging that the adoption of the Charter would be a guarantee of sincerity, and would enlist on their side the support of the millions. Edward Miall seconded the motion, though he spoke very strongly against the unwisdom of the Chartists in pressing their claims so far. O'Brien violently declared himself on the side of Lovett, and the debate was long and excited. During the evening session Lovett and his Chartist colleagues agreed to abandon the exclusive claims of the Charter, and merely insisted that it should be considered along with other similar documents. It is clear that much feeling was aroused by the victory of the extremists, and very great distaste was expressed of the Charter and its associations. Many delegates thought that, having conceded the contents, they might reasonably refuse the name; the Chartists, on the other hand, thought it silly to strain at that gnat after having swallowed the camel. However, the amended resolution was carried unanimously.
The conflict was thus put off till a future date. The Chartists truly had reason on their side. They were men who had done honour to the Chartist creed, and who had little or no part in the evil associations attached to the name. They were proud of their exertions in the cause, and their sacrifices had brought them honour and influence amongst their fellow-workmen. To surrender, the name, because some had made it a by-word, was to them unthinkable, for their purpose was to cleanse Chartism from its evil associations, a purpose which might be accomplished if their middle-class friends would adopt the name. These, on the other hand, had to consider whether they would achieve more by making a fresh appeal to the Radicals of all classes, or by adopting an older cry which was still potent. In short, the problem was whether they would lose more middle-class support than they would gain of working-class support, if they adopted the Chartist programme. This conflict of sentiment and policy was left to be decided later. Meanwhile the Chartist were no doubt satisfied with their gains; their principles had been adopted and their Charter not rejected. With the people of Birmingham they were still popular, for at the great public meeting with which the Conference closed, Lovett, O'Brien, Vincent, Mills, Richardson, Neesom, and Lowery were the speakers. It was a Chartist meeting with Sturge in the chair, but all the speakers, O'Brien included, spoke in favour of union with the middle classes in the great cause of political and social regeneration.
Following the Conference the Complete Suffrage Petition was drawn up. It was dated in good Quaker fashion on the 5th of the fourth month, and contained all the "six points" now so familiar. But the struggle between the old Chartists and the Complete Suffragists had resulted in a final split between them, and the O'Connorites pursued their independent action for the whole Charter, regardless of the rival movement. When the Suffrage Petition came before the House of Commons, Sharman Crawford, member for Rochdale, moved on April 21 that the House should discuss in Committee the question of the reform of the representative system. His motion was of course rejected, the figures being 67 for and 226 against. All the Radicals and Free Traders voted for it.
So matters stood in the Chartist world in the spring of 1842. The National Charter Association, active and virulent, was still organising its Petition and, like certain celestial bodies we read of, giving off in its convulsions an ever-increasing ring of detached fragments. The other Chartists were endeavouring to gain a new support in the Complete Suffrage Movement. Popular Radicalism was organised into three distinct sections under O'Connor, Lovett, and Sturge, and the outcome of the triangular struggle was doubtful.
- Place Collection, Hendon, vol. 65, p. 580.
- Northern Star, July 4, 1840.
- Northern Star, July 18, 1840.
- Ibid. October 3, 1840.
- Place Collection, Hendon, vol. 55, pages following 710 not indexed.
- The Trowbridge Chartists attributed this to Hill.
- Northern Star, April 17, 1841.
- Northern Star, May 1, 1841.
- Northern Star, April 24, 1841.
- Ibid. May 1, 1841.
- Ibid. May 1, 1841; May 8, 1841. Neesom lost all his bookselling business on account of his support of Lovett.
- The Christian Chartists were on his side, but they did not count for much. O'Neill and Lowery signed the Address.
- Northern Star, May 30, 1840, case of Mrs. O'Brien and the Southern Star.
- Gammage, 1854, p. 270.
- Northern Star, April 17, 1841.
- O'Brien recanted somewhat of this argument later in the same year (Northern Star, November 20, 1841) at Whitechapel.
- Northern Star, June 19, 1841.
- Ibid. June 26, 1841.
- Ibid. July 3, 1841.
- Ibid. July 10, 1841.
- Figures were: Whig, 981; Whig, 970; Tory, 884: MacDouall, 170 (Northern Star, July 3, 1841).
- Northern Star, July 10, 1841.
- Northern Star, July 31, 1841; August 14, 1841; August 7, 1841.
- Ibid. October 9, 1841; October 16, 1841.
- Ibid. August 14, 1841.
- Ibid. July 16, 1842.
- Additional MSS. 27,821, p. 315
- Sturge visited the West Indies and America in the cause of Abolition (Brief Sketches of the Birmingham Conference, published by Cleave, 1842).
- Letter to Chairman of A.C.L. Conference, Sun, July 28, 1842.
- Reconciliation, Introduction.
- Quotation from Blackstone.
- For all preceding see Report of Proceedings of the Middle and Working Classes at Birmingham, April 5, 1842, and Following Days, London, 1842, pp. iii. et seq.
- Sturge was one of the founders.
- Herbert Spencer, then a youth of twenty-two, who had been taught by his uncle at Hinton Charterhouse, took some part in the Complete Suffrage agitation, being honorary secretary of the Derby branch. See also later, p. 264
- Report of Proceedings, etc., p. 6.
- Brother of Richard.
- R. K. Philp, Vindication of his Political Conduct, 1842. I am bound to say that I believe Philp with some little reservation.
- Northern Star, April 9, 1842. Philp, Vindication, etc
- Northern Star, March 12, 1842.
- These suspicions were not at first unfounded. See below.
- For trade which is not improving!
- Northern Star, March 26, 1842.
- Ibid. April 2, 1842.
- Northern Star, April 16, 1842.
- Omitting Annual Parliaments and payment of M.P.'s.
- British Statesman, April 16, 1842. For the best report of the Conference see Report of Proceedings, etc., above cited.
- British Statesman, April 24, 1842.