The Chartist Movement/Chapter 16

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In spite of the diversions caused by Sturge, Lovett, O'Brien, and its various other rivals, the National Charter Association continued to push on its preparations for a great demonstration. What the strength of the Association exactly was is difficult to say. Duncombe, in presenting its Petition to the House of Commons in May 1842, said it had 100,000 members who paid a penny a week to carry on the agitation.[1] Had this been so, the National Charter Association would have been a more powerful body than the Anti-Corn Law League itself, even in its best days. No official of the Association claimed more than half that number of members, and judging from the balance sheets, published by the Executive, only a small percentage even of the smaller number paid its pence with any regularity. So low were the funds that the Executive could not find the wherewithal to finance the Conference which was called to counteract the Sturge Conference at Birmingham.[2] Out of 401 "localities" 176 paid nothing to the central funds during the quarter April-July 1842. Manchester was one of these. The falling-off of trade may account for this decline of the finances, but carelessness and laxity were also complained of by the Executive. In spite of this manifest disadvantage (which drove MacDouall into the quack medicine trade[3]) the Association did not abate one jot of its activities. Lecturers were hard at work; new tracts, pamphlets, and small periodicals saw the light. Cooper's Illuminator, Rushlight, and Extinguisher, and Beesley's North Lancashire and Teetotal Letter Bag,[4] were some of the results of this newspaper enterprise. Much of this activity was carried on with small resources, fickle support, and astonishing self-sacrifice, for, as the year 1842 wore on to the summer, the growth of distress made propagandist work terribly difficult and trying. It was so hard to restrain passion and preach patience in those days. Lecturers had to go without their pay; journals circulated at a loss, but enthusiasm and hope were not yet extinguished. Strenuous were the efforts made to enlist the support of the organised trades whose sympathies were Chartist, but whose policy was more cautious. The decline of employment made these efforts more hopeful as the weeks passed by. MacDouall was especially active in this branch of agitation,[5] and Leach was endeavouring to persuade Manchester trade unionists that Trade Unionism was a failure.[6] O'Connor was as energetic and ubiquitous as usual. He was bent on making the Petition a great success: 4,000,000 signatures would be hurled at the House of Commons, and make a way thither for the people's true and democratic representatives.[7]

It had originally been intended that the Convention should meet and the Petition be presented as early as possible after Parliament reassembled in February 1842, but various causes intervened to postpone these events for over two months. The chief of these was the fact that the Scottish Chartists refused to support the National Petition because it included a demand for the Repeal of the Union, and of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.[8] Later on they added a demand for the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which was not included in the Petition.[9] In January 1842 a Scottish delegate assembly decided, on the casting vote of its chairman, to reject the Petition on these grounds. O'Connor was present at the discussion and went out of his way to praise the conduct of the delegates, who decided to draw up a new petition. A week later his journal poured scorn on the "morbid sensitiveness of a few thin-skinned individuals" who had caused the rejection of the Petition, regardless of the fact that they were the majority. MacDouall followed with a more conciliatory remonstrance, and finally O'Connor boxed the compass by a vigorous denunciation of the majority which voted the National Petition down.[10] Negotiations were opened up with the Scots, who seem to have come to terms, for they sent delegates to the Convention which met on April 12, 1842, in London. Owing to lack of funds, it was only to sit for three weeks. The Convention met on the date appointed, but no business was done until the 15th. It consisted of twenty-four members, including Philp, O'Brien, W. P. Roberts, R. Lowery (now a Scottish leader), all more or less under suspicion of being rebels against O'Connor, and sympathisers with Sturge. Lowery, Thomason, A. Duncan, McPherson, and Moir represented the Scots. All the Executive members were present. O'Connor was of course a delegate, and had a goodly "tail," including George White, Pitkeithly, Bartlett, and others.

The first business was to arrange for the presentation of the National Petition. Thomas S. Duncombe, member for Finsbury, agreed to present it early in May, and Sharman Crawford was therefore requested to put off his Complete Suffrage motion, which was down for April 21, until a later date. Crawford refused, and we have already heard how summarily it was rejected. O'Connor took the opportunity of this debate to say a few uncomplimentary words upon the Sturge movement as a whole. The delegates, with a few noteworthy exceptions, gave glowing accounts of the prosperity of the cause in their several districts. The proceedings were enlivened by somewhat lively exchanges between Philp and Roberts on the one side and O'Connor and his friends on the other. A few delegates, like Beesley and John Mason, gave support to the rebels, and the bickering proceeded to such a point that a formal discussion was opened by Thomason as to the best means of allaying such discussions. A farcical reconciliation took place between O'Brien and O'Connor, and the fact was sealed by a motion, proposed by O'Connor and seconded by O'Brien, urging all Chartists to abstain from private slander and schism. Two whole days were thus occupied. The fact was that the Convention had nothing to do, and it amused itself by proposing resolutions about co-operation, teetotalism, and various other more or less irrelevant matters, and then postponing them. One resolution which met this fate deserved it:

"To take into consideration the best means for protecting labour against the influence of those employers who apply it to artificial production, and for insuring to the working classes a supply of all the necessaries of life independent of foreign countries or mercantile speculations."

Its author was O'Connor and its secret small holdings and spade-husbandry.[11]

An Address of the old kind was drawn up and published by the Convention. The usual resolution not to petition any more was placed in the forefront, but it had lost its quondam character of an ultimatum. It was interpreted to mean that the existing House of Commons would not be petitioned again: instead memorials and remonstrances would be employed. A clause expressing sympathy and friendly feeling towards Unions and Associations professing similar opinions was actually carried by the efforts of the Scottish delegates, Philp's friends, and one or two more orthodox O'Connorites, a fact which indicates that O'Connor was not even now able to command the allegiance of all Chartists. O'Connor himself was not present at the debate.

Meanwhile May was drawing near. The Petition itself contained fourteen classes. It recited the usual theory of democracy; it described the various well-known anomalies of representation, complained of bribery "which exists to an extent best known by your honourable house"; it described the grievous burdens of debt and taxes and the rigours of the Poor Law; it spoke feelingly of the great inequality of riches between those who produce and those "whose comparative usefulness ought to be questioned," such as the Queen, the Prince Consort, the King of Hanover, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The quasi-abolition of the right of public meeting, the police force, the standing army, the state of the factory and agricultural labourers, and the Church Establishment all found places in the catalogue of grievances. Then came the praises of the Charter, and the final demand "that your Honourable House … do immediately, without alteration, deduction, or addition, pass into law the document entitled the People's Charter." It was indeed a tremendous and comprehensive document.[12]

The arrival of the Petition at the House of Commons was in keeping with its tremendous import. It had 3,317,702 signatures, said the Northern Star. It was to be delivered at the House of Commons on May 2. At very early hours of that morning detachments of Chartists assembled in various parts of London, and marched to the rendezvous in Lincoln's Inn Fields. At noon the Petition arrived, mounted on a huge wooden frame, on the front of which were painted the figures "3,317,702" above the legend "The Charter." At the back appeared the same figures and "Liberty." On the sides were set forth the "six points" of the Charter. The Petition was just over six miles long. The great bobbin-like frame was mounted on poles for the thirty bearers. The journey to the House began. MacDouall and Ruffy Ridley, a London Chartist worthy, headed a procession on horseback. Then came the Petition, next the Convention, headed by O'Connor himself, and followed by a band. Delegates from various towns, and Chartist rank and file brought up the rear of what, if the Northern Star is to be credited, was an uncommonly long column. It took a devious route, and the head reached the House when the rear was at Oxford Circus, a length of nearly two miles. When the Petition reached the Houses of Parliament, the huge framework was found much too large to enter, and it had to be broken up. The Petition was carried in in lumps and bundles and strewed all over the floor of the House. It looked as if it had been snowing paper. Nevertheless the Petition made a very impressive show.[13]

Next day, May 3, Duncombe brought forward his motion, that the petitioners should be heard at the bar of the House by themselves, their counsel or agents. He spoke of the great authority such a petition must possess. He traced the Charter to its aristocratic origin in order to vindicate its respectability. The Chartists were but the Radicals of former days, and, like the Whigs themselves, were the inheritors of the tradition of the Duke of Richmond, Major Cartwright, and the other early advocates of Radical Reform. He described, in language borrowed largely from Chartist sources, the great distress in the manufacturing districts, distress which was due partly at least to the fact that the interests of the industrious classes were not represented in Parliament. Leader, Bowring, and Fielden supported the motion. Sir James Graham opposed. Then arose Macaulay to make one of the last great Whig utterances ever delivered in Parliament. Macaulay's chief objection was to universal suffrage. "I believe that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which Government exists, and for which aristocracies and all other things exist, and that it is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation. I conceive that civilisation rests upon the security of property. … I will assert that while property is insecure, it is not in the power of the finest soil, or of the moral or intellectual constitution of any country, to prevent the country sinking into barbarism." A government elected by persons who had no property would of course give no guarantee for the security of those who had. The petition was a clear indication of this. National Bankruptcy and the expropriation of landed property would follow inevitably if the petitioners were enfranchised. Macaulay quite believed that unparalleled distress had driven them to adopt such disastrous remedies. Education would perhaps teach them better, but till then it would be madness to give the petitioners power to enforce their legislative infatuations. The result of enfranchising such persons would be one huge spoliation. Distress, famine, and pestilence would ensue, and the resultant confusion would lead again to military despotism. England would fall from her high place among the nations, her glory and prosperity would depart, leaving her an object of contempt. Of her it would be written that "England had her institutions, imperfect though they were, but which yet contained within themselves the means of remedying all imperfections. Those institutions were wantonly thrown away for no purpose whatever, but because she was asked to do so by persons who sought her ruin. Her ruin was the consequence, and she deserves it."

Not less extraordinary was the outburst of Roebuck who spoke nominally in favour of the Petition. Government, said he, was constituted to counteract the natural desire of every man to live upon the labour of others. Therefore, to exclude a majority of citizens from the control of public affairs was in effect to allow the minority to oppress the majority. Roebuck denied that the petitioners were hostile to property, which was as essential to their welfare as it was to its owners'. They were not so infatuated as to destroy their own livelihood.

Roebuck said he was not concerned with the Petition, or with its trashy doctrine, which was drawn up by a malignant and cowardly demagogue. The great fact was that three millions had petitioned, and he believed they ought to be admitted within the pale of the Constitution. It would be the best guarantee for the security of property, and it would give to every man the proceeds of his own labour, subject only to the payment of his just share of the public burthens. This was one of the chief of the people's grievances, that, because they were unrepresented, they were unfairly taxed. A change in the representation would remedy this injustice. It would not dethrone wealth and eminence altogether, but would cut off their over-great preponderance.

Roebuck's reference to O'Connor did tremendous damage. In spite of his thoroughly Chartist sentiments he had ruined the whole case. Let us hear Lord John Russell. Lord John had as great a respect for the petition as abhorrence of its demands. Even to discuss such demands would bring into question the ancient and venerable institutions of the country. It would drive capital out of the country by throwing doubts upon the rights of property and of the public creditor. The fund out of which the working people are supported would be reduced and much distress would follow.

If, as the member for Bath had told them, the Petition was drawn up by a malignant and cowardly demagogue, was that not a serious reflection upon the petitioners? Might they not, if the Petition were granted, elect the said demagogue to Parliament? That being so, were measures of spoliation totally out of the question? Electors would require more circumspection than that. Property, intelligence, and knowledge were the qualifications for a constituency. Citizens, moreover, had no natural and inherent right to the franchise, for the franchise was granted by the laws and institutions of the country in so far as the grant was considered conducive to better government. The grant of universal suffrage was not so conducive. Though the petitioners were not actuated by motives of destruction and spoliation, yet in the present state of education there was great danger that elections under universal suffrage would give cause for much "ferment." Revolutionary-minded persons might be elected, and such a thing could not be beneficial, considering how delicate and complex the institutions and society of the country were. There were very old institutions, such as the Church and the Aristocracy, which hold property. These might be offered as prizes to a people in distress, yet to touch these institutions, which held society together, would be disastrous.

Peel spoke much in the same strain. What was the question before the House? Was it that the petitioners should be heard at the bar? Now the whole constitution was impeached by the petition, and could the impeachment be despatched by a few speeches at the bar? And who would speak at the bar but the foolish, malignant, and cowardly demagogue who drew up the trashy petition, and who was not the real leader of the people? As to the granting of the Charter, he believed that it was incompatible with that mixed monarchy under which they lived and which had secured one hundred and fifty years of greater liberty and happiness than had been enjoyed by any other country, not excepting the United States of America.

There was little more to be said. The "malignant and cowardly demagogue" haunted the debate. Forty-nine members voted with Duncombe, and 287 against him. Macaulay and Roebuck had slain the great Petition.[14]

  1. Hansard, 3rd ser. vol. lxiii. p. 13.
  2. Northern Star, April 11, 1842.
  3. Ibid. April 2, 1842.
  4. Ibid. January 1, 1842.
  5. Northern Star, May 14 and 21, 1812.
  6. Ibid. March 26, 1842.
  7. Ibid. November 13, 1841.
  8. Ibid. November 27, 1841.
  9. Ibid. January 8, 1842.
  10. Ibid. January 8, 15, 22, 1842.
  11. For accounts of these discussions, Northern Star, April 23 and 30, 1842. British Statesman, April 24, 1842, May 1, 1842.
  12. Northern Star, October 16, 1841.
  13. Northern Star, May 7, 1842.
  14. Annual Register, 1842, pp. [152-]160, summarises the debate; the full report is in Hansard's Debates, 3rd series, lxiii. 13-91.