The Chartist Movement/Chapter 6

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The Birmingham Political Union, which, had played so great, a part in the Reform movement of 1830–32, declined and dissolved in 1834 after four years' activity. Like other politically minded people, the leaders of this Union awaited quietly the fruits of their labours in the form of measures of social reform. Meanwhile they took full advantage of the trade boom of 1832–36. Even politicians must earn their living, and the leaders of the Political Union were flourishing bankers and manufacturers to whom prosperous trade was not without attractions. During these years the Reformed Parliament was energetically at work and gave forth the result of its labours in the Poor Law Amendment Act and the Municipal Reform Act of 1834–35. Good trade, enormous business with the United States, and super-luxuriant harvests diverted public attention from politics, and no doubt the reaction was wholesome after the excitement of the Reform Bill campaign. The militant Owenism, which had largely contributed to the downfall of the Birmingham Union in 1833–34, passed away, to all appearances, as quickly as it had arisen. In 1836, however, came the first indications of an economic collapse, heralded by astounding events in the United States. As the year wore on the magnitude of the collapse grew, and Birmingham trade began to suffer severely. Distress and unemployment increased to an unparalleled extent. The austerity of the New Poor Law now became apparent, and all the ugly symptoms of social unrest made their appearance.

The leaders of the old Union, many of whom were now members of the new Corporation of the town, felt it incumbent upon them to take measures to ameliorate the sad state of many of their fellow-townsmen and former faithful followers. A Reform Association was set up in 1836 with this object. It quickly developed into something more. Instead of seeking merely to relieve the local distress, the leaders determined to devise a remedy for the general evil. It was not far to seek. Thomas Attwood (1783–1856), the Birmingham banker, had long possessed an infallible plan, and his colleagues easily became true believers. Here is his diagnosis and his remedy. The cause of distress is the dearness of food and the dearness of money. The landlords pass laws to make food dear and the money lords pass laws to make money dear. The result is great distress which drives people to the workhouse. But the relentless cruelty of the dominant classes pursues them here also and converts their place of refuge into a horrible dungeon. To crown all, the tyrants have established a Police Force to repress all protests and to nip sedition in the bud.[1] What was the remedy? Obviously the repeal of the Corn Laws and the Money Laws, but especially the latter. Peel's Act of 1819, which authorised the return to gold payments and the "restriction" of the currency, must be repealed, and proper measures must be taken to regulate the currency according to the state of trade. The great panacea was the "expansion" of the currency by the issue of more paper money. As blood to the body so currency to trade: more blood better health. Paper money would increase business, destroy unemployment, increase wages, decrease debts, in fact make everybody happy.

Being a banker Attwood could pose as an authority, and he had long gathered round him a body of fervent disciples who had fought the glorious campaign of 1830–32 under his leadership. Among these were R. K. Douglas, who urged his views in the Birmingham Journal; T. C. Salt, a lamp manufacturer[2] employing one hundred men, and a man of considerable influence amongst working people; Benjamin Hadley, an alderman, and a churchwarden of the Parish Church; George Edmonds, a solicitor, a guardian of the poor, and a convinced Radical; George Frederick Muntz, who made a fortune by the manufacture of a metallic compound known as "Muntz metal"; P. H. Muntz, also a man of finance; and Joshua Scholefield, who with Attwood himself represented the borough of Birmingham in Parliament. The working-class wing of the party was led by John Collins, a shoemaker and a Sunday School teacher, an honest character, held in very high respect, and an orator of some talent.

Early in 1837[3] this group began to agitate the currency theory in and out of Parliament. As the distress in the town grew, so did the activity of the old Unionists, in their capacity of the Birmingham Reform Association. In April 1837 they decided to enlist working-class support for their movement and to call upon the ancient glories of 1830–32. On the 18th they passed a resolution, restoring the name Birmingham Political Union.[4] The formal revival took place on May 23, and a few days later the Union, which already numbered over 5000 members, published its first address to the public, asking for support in its endeavours to find a remedy for the existing distress.[5]

This, as it later appeared, was a fatal step. The revival of the Union was more than the revival of a name: it was the resurrection of a programme whose realisation was compatible with the Currency Scheme only in the sanguine minds of the followers of Attwood, and even they were not unanimous in their optimism. On June 19 a great meeting of the Union decided upon a programme of Parliamentary Reform which included Household Suffrage, Vote by Ballot, Triennial Parliaments, Payment of Members of Parliament, and the abolition of the Property Qualification.[6] The Attwoodites had thus added to their dubious measure of Currency Reform, which was scarcely calculated to awaken the enthusiasm of the working classes or of any other class except that of debtors who would like to avoid payment, a political reform in which they were only secondarily interested. To carry one measure of doubtful value, they proposed to agitate for five others which, though much more desirable in themselves, were calculated to arouse the very strongest resistance. Supposing that their influence in Birmingham was due to the manifest advantages of Currency Reform, they continued to keep that measure as the first plank of their platform. It is doubtful whether the working classes of Birmingham were really concerned about currency at all, but they were concerned about the vote.[7] The position of the Attwoodites was thus false, and its weakness was quickly exposed when they turned their programme over to the working classes as a whole. The Currency plan was quietly shelved and with it the Birmingham Political Union.

The split between the working-class members of the Union and their wealthy leaders, which developed gradually during 1838, was at first hidden under the show of general harmony. The great meeting of June 19, 1837, at which fifty thousand persons are said to have been present, decided to send petitions to the Premier asking for immediate measures of relief.[8] The deputation urged its Currency Scheme, suggested action by Order in Council as being more expeditious than by bill, and came away satisfied that Melbourne was a convert. Attwood was re-elected to Parliament, on the monetary question, as he thought. The activities of the Union were extended into the neighbourhood of Birmingham and societies were formed to spread the Attwood gospel.[9] In this connection Place made the famous sally, noted by Mr. Graham Wallas. "Adhesion meant submission to Mr. Attwood and his absurd currency proposal, which few understood and all who did condemned." The London Working Men's Association, which was acting demurely in alliance with the Radical group in the Commons, made offer of alliance with the Birmingham Union in the cause of Universal Suffrage. The offer was not publicly accepted, as the communication came under the Corresponding Societies' Acts, and was therefore unlawful.[10]

In the autumn when Parliament reassembled the currency campaign began afresh but culminated, it is to be feared, in a total defeat on November 2, 1837. A deputation led by Attwood harangued Melbourne and Spring Rice, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for two hours, but unfortunately for their success the speakers had the most diverse opinions upon the remedy to be adopted, and as all the members of the deputation spoke, it is not surprising to know that Melbourne was not prepared to act upon such discordant advice.[11] The deputation went back to Birmingham to report progress. The difference of opinion widened. Some were for continuing the currency campaign; others under P. H. Muntz, Hadley, and Salt were for shelving it in favour of Universal Suffrage. On November 7 P. H. Muntz brought forward a resolution to that effect, and carried it in spite of opposition and some uproar.[12] This decision saved the situation and the Union for the time being by securing a wider working-class support for it, but it piled up difficulties for the future. A movement in favour of Universal Suffrage could not long remain tied to the apron-strings of the Birmingham Union, as was fondly hoped, and the currency question still remained to be solved. Douglas compromised by inserting an Attwoodite clause into the National Petition of 1838, which clause was contumeliously rejected by the Convention in 1839.

Meanwhile the resolution of November 7 had unexpectedly large results. Lord John Russell had roused the ire of Radicals by his "finality" declaration. On the 28th Douglas carried a resolution of protest in the Council of the Union, and on December 7 the Union called upon all Radicals to unite in an attempt to procure the reform which Lord John had declared impossible. This was an appeal to Cæsar with a vengeance. The Radicals of Great Britain were mainly amongst the working classes, and in rousing them to political action the Birmingham Union had stirred up a giant which was destined to turn and rend it. The first response to the appeal was made by the London Working Men's Association, and these two organisations began to agitate on a much larger scale. Political excitement was growing. The accession of Queen Victoria was expected to have great and good things in store for the working people. Meanwhile distress and unemployment increased. The population of the North of England began to become restive. Stephens and Oastler were active and had recently acquired an accession of agitating violence in O'Connor and the Northern Star, and in A. H. Beaumont and the Northern Liberator. It was a bad time to appeal to working-class feelings. The better sort of working people were angry over their 1832 disappointment, dismayed by their Trade Union failure of 1834, and saw in the prosecution of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners a declaration of the Government's hostility to their legitimate aspirations; whilst the poorer operatives in the domestic industries were horrified at the deterrent Poor Law Administration. Fiery sentimentalists, like Oastler and Stephens, found it easy to rouse such a population to fury. Even in normal times it was an unruly people. From 1830 onwards order was only maintained in Manchester by military force.[13] It was to this stormy ocean that Attwood and his friends proposed to entrust their frail currency bark. An early shipwreck awaited it.

The Birmingham Union now entered upon a dazzling phase of activity. Its leaders fancied themselves as victorious generals, once more leading the legions of industrious patriots into the legislative citadel, as they fondly supposed had been the case in 1831–32. They would set up their standard in the Midlands and call all working men into it. They anticipated that their massed battalions would overawe Melbourne as easily as Wellington or Lyndhurst. They were moral force men, but they fancied that moral force meant only a display of the potentialities of physical force. Edmonds spoke darkly about the substantial thing behind moral force which produced the impression upon rulers.[14] Attwood, carried away by excitement and disappointment, on December 19, 1837, denounced the Radicals in the House for their unspeakable dulness in remaining unconvinced by his Currency eloquence, and voted them a dogged, stupid, obstinate set of fellows from whom the people had really nothing good to expect. He was for extreme measures and substituted Universal Suffrage for Household Suffrage in his political creed. He would get two million followers—a force to which Government must bow.[15]

This speech and its programme provided the raw material for the National Petition, as it came to be called. The meeting of June 19 had decided upon a petition in favour of Radical reform, and the document itself was drawn up by R. K. Douglas. The Petition in its final shape demanded Repeal of Peel's Act of 1819 and of the Corn Laws; and the amended political reforms mentioned by Attwood in December.

Agitation began in the immediate neighbourhood of Birmingham and was pursued for some three months. In March 1838, a great step forward was taken, and it was decided to send a missionary to Glasgow.[16] That town, in common with most of the other industrial centres, was labouring under severe depression. In the immediate neighbourhood there were thousands of handloom weavers whose distress was chronic during normal times and acute during the depression. The operatives in the factories had been terrified by the prosecution of their leaders. In general there was plenty of combustible material for an agitator. The Birmingham Union sent Collins as their emissary. His business was to bring over the discontented of Glasgow to the Attwoodite standard, and to persuade them to organise an agitation on the same lines as at Birmingham. Collins did his work effectively, and his enthusiastic reports gladdened the hearts of the Birmingham leaders, who, we are assured by an unfriendly witness, badly needed the stimulus.[17] From this time onward the monster petition idea gathered support and substance. At Birmingham there was jubilation to excess. Men began to think in millions, but while Douglas moderately hoped for two million supporters, Salt was admonished by P. H. Muntz to expect six millions. So confident were the leaders of ultimate success that they already began to talk of coercing Government by "ulterior measures,"[18] assuming already that the millions who were to sign the Petition would be effective political warriors instead of what they for the most part were—non-combatants who hoped the Birmingham people would win. This assumption that all sympathisers are as zealous and determined as their leaders, is common to all enthusiasts, and explains much that seems the height of folly in the subsequent developments of the movement. But the confusion of signatories and supporters was common to all Chartists for a long time.

Collins acted the part of an Attwoodite John the Baptist with great efficiency, and in May the time was ripe for the Messiah himself to appear in Glasgow. On April 24 Collins's mission culminated in a conference of trades at Glasgow which resolved to call a monster meeting on May 21, and to invite a deputation from Birmingham.[19] This was duly reported by Collins to headquarters, and the Birmingham leaders made an enthusiastic response. At a monster meeting on May 14 a deputation was appointed, consisting of Attwood, Joshua Scholefield, P. H. Muntz, Hadley, Edmonds, Salt, and Douglas. To this meeting was presented a draft petition which was to be sent to Glasgow for adoption there. This was the first public appearance of the National Petition.[20]

The Glasgow Demonstration was an immense success. It was believed that one hundred and fifty thousand Radicals, marshalled under thirty-eight banners, took part. Besides Attwood and his friends, there were other speakers, including James McNish, the hero of the Cotton Spinners' trial, and two delegates, Murphy and Dr. Wade, from the London Working Men's Association. These last named presented to the meeting the "People's Charter."[21]

This meeting, therefore, brought the beginning of an organised "national" movement a step nearer. It still remained to cultivate the other fields of discontent in the North of England and in Wales. Glasgow, Birmingham, and London were now apparently brought into line. The Birmingham Petition and the London Charter were both made public. What was equally important, plans for future agitation and organisation were suggested. Attwood made two remarkable propositions—the summoning of a National Convention to concentrate the Radical strength, and a General Strike of all the industries—masters and men together, in order to humble the common enemy, the Government. It was to be a modern secession to the Sacred Mount, peaceful, complete, and effective. Unfortunately for Attwood, he had been long since forestalled in the idea of a General Strike, and by men of less peaceable natures.

From Glasgow the deputation went on a tour in Scotland as far north as Perth, visiting Edinburgh, Kilmarnock, Stirling, Dundee, Cupar, Dunfermline, Elderslie (Renfrew), accompanied occasionally by Dr. Wade.[22] It returned in great triumph to Birmingham, leaving Collins to work his way slowly through the North of England where he made acquaintance with J. R. Stephens, whose methods and language horrified him.[23] He popularised the National Petition in the industrial districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire some time before the People's Charter obtained a footing there. Meetings began to be held in June and July[24] in support of the Petition, whilst the first mention in the Northern Star of the Charter is on July 16 in connection with a meeting at Dewsbury. The idea of a Convention took hold of popular imagination. On July 17 the Birmingham Union held a meeting at which the plan of a Convention took practical form, and the results of its deliberations were made public. It was to be called the General Convention of the Industrious Classes, and was to consist of not more than forty-nine members. No delegate was to be elected as the representative of any organised body, or by any organisation, but elections must be made in meetings called with every legal formality and open to the public at large. These precautions were necessary in view of the laws against Corresponding Societies. The Birmingham people would lead the way at a meeting on August 6, at which their delegates would be elected,[25] and the People's Charter and National Petition adopted.

The meeting on August 6, 1838, at Newhall Hill is the official beginning of the Chartist Movement, that is, of the union of all working-class Radicals in one movement. Besides the Birmingham leaders, there were present Feargus O'Connor and R. J. Richardson, representing Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively; Wade, Henry Vincent, and Henry Hetherington, representing the London Working Men's Association; Purdie and Moir, representing Scotland. A crowd of 200,000 people lined the side of the hill at the foot of which the hustings were placed. To those on the platform the crowd presented a wonderful sight, and the enthusiasm generated by the presence of so vast an assembly was immense. Attwood was the principal figure. It was perhaps the climax of his Radical career, and he improved the occasion with a speech which lasted, on a moderate computation, two and a quarter hours, in which he reviewed the whole case against the Government and looked forward to a sure and speedy victory. The ultimate goal was the abolition of the Corn Laws, the Money Laws, and the Poor Law of 1834, and a reform of the Factory System. P. H. Muntz appealed for an abandonment of all sectional movements in favour of Petition and Charter. These were enthusiastically adopted, and the meeting proceeded to an election of delegates to the Convention. No less than eight were appointed, all the Union leaders being elected except Attwood, who, as Member of Parliament, would help the cause there. These delegates were authorised to take charge of the arrangements for the summoning of the Convention and the circulation of the Petition.

Thus a great general working-class movement began its career. For the next three years the forces of working-class discontent, of popular aspirations and enthusiasms were concentrated as they had never been concentrated before under the standards of the National Petition and the People's Charter. The Attwoodites were intoxicated with the unexpectedly large success of their schemes and contemplated with satisfaction their future progress towards a sure and certain victory. But the Birmingham Union died in giving birth to the Chartist Movement.

For a time all went well. The election of delegates was carried out in all parts of the country during September and the following months.[26] Nevertheless from this time forward the Birmingham Union lost hold upon the Movement, and when the Convention met leadership was already gone from their delegates. The Union itself began to collapse and it was the Convention which dealt the final blow.

This downfall was due to a combination of forces working both within and without the Union. In the first place the Birmingham Political Union was an anachronism, a resurrection from the days before militant Owenism had inculcated the idea of a class war. It was a body whose rank and file were working people and whose leaders were middle-class men. As such it was opposed to the prevailing tendency amongst working people. The London Working Men's Association was founded with the idea of excluding any but bona fide artisans, and though it in practice was prepared to co-operate with middle-class people, it made no concealment of the fact that it held such co-operation to imply no subordination. The London working men would accept no terms but equal alliance. They had drunk deep of the liquor of O'Brienism and, in the somewhat limited social philosophy at their disposal, identified the middle class with the capitalist employing class, whose elimination was one of the principal articles of their creed. The working men of the North, who had suffered more personally from the evils they denounced, held the same views, but in a cruder and more violent form than did the skilled artisans of London. Neither section, however, believed that the interests of middle class and working class could possibly be identical, or that a middle-class leader was to be trusted. The mere fact that a middle-class leader was zealous for a particular object was a guarantee that that object was not one for which working men should strive.

There are early hints that the London Working Men's Association was not inclined to allow the Birmingham leaders or their programme to take first place in the national movement. The presence of Dr. Wade at Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Birmingham was very significant. Wade had been a member of the old Birmingham Union in 1832, and had created a storm by advocating the formation of a Working Men's Union on the ground that middle-class leadership could not possibly be satisfactory to working men. Middle-class people would invariably be attracted by speculative bubble schemes which would depreciate labour.[27] He used the language of militant Owenism of which he, Vicar of Warwick as he was, was a prop and pillar. He was in fact a Christian Socialist of an early generation and a pronounced type. He was active in various purely Owenite societies in London and a member of the semi-Owenite National Union of the Working-Classes. For his temerity the Birmingham Union proposed to exclude him, and it is probable that the old leaders of the new Union were not pleased to be haunted by his presence and his continual thrusting forward of the Charter.[28] The London W.M.A. had other reasons for suspecting the Attwoodites besides class prejudice. They did not like the Currency Scheme. O'Brien, who borrowed some currency lore from Attwood, thought his plans unsound and said so.

The Currency Scheme was in truth a great source of weakness. The Attwoodites had obtained popular support by promising immediate benefit for both master and man from the adoption of their scheme. When the political programme was added, a body of supporters was obtained who were far more concerned for the vote than for paper money. Place indeed did not hesitate to ascribe the collapse, not only of the Birmingham Union, but also of the whole movement, to the Currency Scheme. Attwood and his lieutenants, he declared, were not at all eager for the Petition and Charter, and started the movement for Universal Suffrage as a means of intimidating Government to accept the Currency notion. Hence they were always ready to let it drop. This conduct played into the hands of the violent leaders.[29] Place further maintained that the Attwoodites themselves considered with some misgiving the possibility that a Parliament, elected by Universal Suffrage, might not care to legislate about the Currency, either because the question was not understood or because a remedy could not be devised to suit all opinions.[30] This is certainly a damaging statement, for if Attwood and Douglas felt that the nation as a whole would reject their panacea, it is easily conceivable that their enthusiasm for Radical reform would evaporate. But Place adds to his indictment. He declares that, having come to the conclusion that the Currency Scheme would not meet with universal approval or be universally comprehended, they smuggled it into the National Petition, hoping that their "tacking" would be unnoticed in the popular enthusiasm.[31] With all respect to Place as a shrewd politician and a contemporary observer, it must be confessed that he proves too much. He later on praises Douglas for his caution and moderation,[32] and it is permissible to hope, therefore, that Douglas was not such a reckless trickster as this sort of conduct implies. Furthermore, there was a sufficient fund of currency ideas in popular circles to make a project of currency reform seem less criminally absurd than Place thought it was.[33] The currency question was not res judicata by any means, and even Peel's currency theories could be called into question by reputable authority in the next generation.

Apart from class hatred and currency schemes, the Birmingham Union incurred the hostility of many of its new disciples by its moderation. It was this more than anything else that ruined the Union and eliminated it from the movement. When Attwood and his colleagues transformed a more or less local and harmless currency agitation into a national political movement, they found that they were not the only agitators in the field, and that their reputation was as nothing amongst those whom they aspired to lead, compared with that of mob-orators like Stephens, Vincent, or O'Connor. Hence from the very beginning they figured as generals of brigade rather than as commanders-in-chief. Throughout the whole Chartist array there was no commander-in-chief—no one with the authority of a Cobden or the capacity for organisation of a George Wilson.

The immediate cause of rupture between the northern extremists and the Birmingham Union, which occurred in November-December 1838, was the fiery campaign of J. R. Stephens, to whom the People's Charter seemed to give renewed fire and eloquence. From the beginning of September Chartist meetings, often by torchlight,[34] began to be held in Lancashire and Yorkshire, at which Stephens was a regular speaker. On October 29 there were violent speeches at a torchlight meeting at Bolton, where delegates were elected to the Convention. On the following day Douglas made a grave speech on the subject to the Union. Salt specifically denounced O'Connor, who had talked moral force to Salt and violence in Lancashire.[35] This was, in fact, O'Connor's practice. He varied his tone according to his audience, like a true demagogue. Salt thought O'Connor was playing them false.

In any case O'Connor aided considerably. On September 8 the Northern Star published an article headed: "The National Guards of Paris have petitioned for an Extension of the Suffrage, and they have done it with Arms in their hands." On October 18 he was present at the great meeting at Peep Green, Bradford, and made vaguely suggestive remarks upon tyrannicides whilst his lieutenant, Bussey, advised the audience to get rifles.[36]

O'Connor attended the meeting at Preston on November 5 at which Marsden was elected delegate. He made a speech in which he declared that the power of kings was only maintained by "physical force." The Government would not dare to use physical force against them as at Peterloo because they (the Government) knew that the wadding of the first discharge would set fire to Preston. That was not threatening language but soothing language, intended to prevent the Whigs from firing the first shot. At the same meeting James Whittle referred to the authors of the New Poor Law in terms of Psalm 109. Technically O'Connor's speech was not an appeal to violence, but it was calculated to familiarise his audience with suggestions of an unpeaceable character. On the following day at Manchester he said he was for peace, "but if peace giveth not law, then I am for war to the knife." O'Connor seldom made direct and unqualified declarations.[37] The next day at Manchester O'Connor pooh-poohed Douglas's idea that three years' agitation would be required to secure the Charter. Why wait three years? if the Charter was good it was good in 1839 as in 1842. Would delay serve their cause? Would not the agitation evaporate?[38]

Meanwhile the agitation waxed fast and furious. Stephens made a speech at Norwich so violent that the Northern Star expurgated it.[39] Douglas obtained an account and declared to the Birmingham Union that something must be done as Stephens was elected a delegate to the Convention. The Birmingham people were beginning to regret their precipitancy in admitting such roaring lions into peaceful currency pastures.

At the weekly meeting of the Union on November 13 there was an unexpected visitor. It was O'Connor, who, following his usual custom, entered when proceedings were in full swing in order to concentrate all attention upon himself.[40] He had come to defend himself against the calumnies of Salt and Douglas. He had been charged with traitorously preaching physical force, and had gone so far as to declare that on September 29, 1839, all moral agitation must come to an end and other measures be taken, if the Charter were not by that time obtained. O'Connor, who made a very ingenious defence, had had some legal training. He pointed out, amongst other things, that it was quite necessary to fix a limit to peaceful agitation because the people would become impatient and the agitation would gradually die away.[41] This was probably a true statement of the attitude of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Chartists at least, but it augured badly for the soundness of the Chartist cause and the discipline of its zealots. O'Connor scored, too, by pointing out that the Birmingham leaders had sinned also in the matter of violent language. That was true. The real difference between Birmingham and the northern Chartists was that the Birmingham leaders regarded a display of numbers—of "physical force"—as a useful background to lend reality to their views, but the northern people looked upon physical force as the whole picture.

A week later O'Connor appeared again before the Union, evoking cheers and sympathy by pretending to be on his trial before the honest working men of Birmingham. Meanwhile Stephens was breathing fire and slaughter with undiminished vigour. On November 12 he attended a meeting at Wigan and denounced the London and Birmingham leaders as old women.[42] He probably felt, what many of his followers later on openly said, that the Charter-Petition agitation would smother the Anti-Poor Law Movement in which he was so absorbed. In view of this language, the meeting of November 20 at Birmingham was exciting and stormy. The Union was divided between Salt and O'Connor. Muntz was hissed. The meeting was adjourned.[43] The attack on O'Connor was renewed in the Birmingham Journal of November 24, in which Douglas roundly declared that, whatever O'Connor's party said and professed, their real programme was illegality, disorder, and civil war.[44]

There was a final conference on November 28, O'Connor again attending. The meeting was awaited with much misgiving. Apparently the Birmingham leaders were not unanimous as to the course to be pursued with respect to their unruly ally. Some were for repudiating him, which was perhaps the most honourable course. Others were for conciliation, thinking that a repudiation of O'Connor would remove the northern counties, and perhaps Scotland too, from the agitation. At the same time O'Connor, seeing the wide possibilities before a great national agitation, and knowing how popular the Petition-Charter programme was becoming, was prepared to make concessions to the nominal leaders of the movement. The result was that the meeting passed off with a restoration of harmony, both sides giving the soft answers that turn away wrath. Douglas and Salt spoke with absurd adulation of the Irish demagogue. Salt apologised. O'Connor was gracious. George Edmonds, who wanted to get rid of O'Connor at any price, tried to pin him down to an explicit repudiation of force, but O'Connor shuffled and the meeting was in his favour. Collins suggested a middle course which did not bind O'Connor to a repudiation of Stephens and all his ways. This was accepted and the meeting broke up, the Birmingham leaders fancying that they had at last muzzled their inconvenient rival. But the impression left by a study of these proceedings is rather that O'Connor had undermined the authority of the leaders in their own Union, especially amongst the working people over whom no one could so easily acquire influence as he. He no doubt relied upon his blarneying capacity when he invited himself into the Union meeting on November 6. If he did, his confidence was justified by the outcome.[45]

Nevertheless O'Connor's conduct was for a time distinctly moderated after this event. At Bury he addressed a torchlight meeting on December 8. This was "the most remarkable" of the torchlight meetings. It was held in defiance of Fielden's warning that the Government was prepared to prosecute the conveners of and participators in such gatherings. The speeches, O'Connor's included, were apparently milder than usual. A week later he repudiated physical force in the Northern Star. He did not prevent the insertion in the same paper of a letter from O'Connell denouncing himself, Oastler, and Stephens by name. It seemed as if harmony were completely restored, but it was a very delusive peace which reigned, and equally short-lived.


That these were really deserving of the ridicule heaped upon them by Place will be evident to the attentive reader of the reprint of Attwood's article of 1822 in the Birmingham Journal of May 5, 1832. The source of all social evils was the resumption of cash payments in 1819, which made debts, contracted previous to 1819 in an inflated currency, payable in a restricted currency, and thus enhanced the burdens of debtors. The argument runs thus:

In 1791 Currency and Prices were in a normal state. From thence till 1797 the Currency became depreciated and prices rose owing to the creation of £5 Bank of England notes, the extension of other note issues, and the growing burden of taxes and loans. By 1797 currency was depreciated 50 per cent. Not only paper but gold too was depreciated, the latter, as Cobbett showed, by sympathy. From 1797 onwards, by reason of the Bank Restriction, there was a further rise in the prices of property and labour of from 50 to 70 per cent, making 100 per cent or 120 per cent in all. Thus the loans and obligations contracted between 1797 and 1819 were contracted in a currency which possessed only one half the value it had before the war. This applied both to public and private contracts, to industrial debts as well as to the rents of farms. Furthermore the high taxation during the war was only possible through the inflation of the currency, since the high prices reduced the actual value absorbed by the taxation (e.g. a tax of 40s. was discharged by goods worth only 20s.).

Public obligations contracted during the war amounted to 1247 millions, private obligations to 1245 millions, making roughly 2500 millions. Government by removing the Bank Restriction practically doubled these obligations, making them 5000 millions. This measure was the measure of a body of creditors; hence their eagerness to double the burden of their debtors. Had Parliament been a body of debtors it would have halved the burden of debtors. A body composed of both would do what reason and justice required—coin ten old mint shillings into one pound sterling. Even this measure would leave prices double those of 1791.

In this treatise confusion and error are so confounded as to make it difficult to know which fallacy to handle first. One or two errors of mathematics may be tackled first. He says before 1797 the currency was depreciated 50 per cent. Later on he says this 50 per cent rise of prices was increased another 50 or 70 per cent. A 50 per cent depreciation of currency is not the same as a 50 per cent rise of prices which he assumes is the case, but a 100 per cent rise. This error curiously enough is avoided a few lines further on, where he makes a rise of 100 per cent or 120 per cent in prices equivalent to a depreciation of currency by one half (unless, of course, this statement is a lucky shot which was really aimed at the wrong target but hit the right one).

Finally the highest percentage of depreciation of paper as expressed in gold between 1797 and 1819 was not more than 25 per cent, equivalent to a rise in prices of goods as expressed in paper money of 33⅓ per cent. One may feel sure that for the most part contracts would be made with the requisite reservations on this point, and hardship would be more nominal than real on the return to cash payments.

The soundness of Attwood's economics may be deduced from the fact that he assumed that it was a matter of no consequence whether prices rose through development of trade—i.e. of demand—or through depreciation of the currency. It was a distinction without a difference, he thought.

  1. Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 75.
  2. Charter, March 3, 1839, p. 81.
  3. Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 75.
  4. Ibid. 27,819, pp. 79-84.
  5. Ibid. 27,819, p. 94.
  6. Ibid. 27,819, p. 99.
  7. This is demonstrated in my opinion by the ease with which O'Connor was able to undermine the influence of the Attwood group in December 1838. Place was hostile to the Currency Scheme, and ridiculed the Attwoodites mercilessly. He charges them with intending to smuggle the Currency Scheme into the Chartist programme without obtaining the assent of the Chartists or even of the working men of Birmingham (ibid. pp. 134-8).
  8. Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 111.
  9. Ibid. 27,819, pp. 114-16. Place suggests that the Currency notion was thrust on them.
  10. Perhaps the Birmingham people were not sorry, as they did not want equal alliance but preponderant influence.
  11. Additional MSS. 27,819, pp. 127 et seq.; on the authority of the Birmingham Journal.
  12. Additional MSS. 27,819, pp. 145-8.
  13. J. P. Kay, Working Classes in Manchester, 1832.
  14. Additional MSS. 27,819, p. 149.
  15. Ibid. 27,819, p. 162.
  16. Ibid. 27,820, p. 68.
  17. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 76.
  18. Ibid. 27,820, p. 73.
  19. Ibid. 27,820, p. 78.
  20. ibid. 27,820, pp. 82, 89.
  21. Additional MSS. 27,820, pp. 109-119.
  22. Northern Star, June 2, 1838.
  23. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 141.
  24. E.g. Leeds, June 5; Oldham, July 1.
  25. Northern Star, August 4, 1838.
  26. Place, Additional MSS. 27,820, gives notices of thirty-eight meetings between August 6 and December 18, of which fourteen elected delegates.
  27. Additional MSS. 27,796, pp. 333-4.
  28. Attwood said later that he never saw the Charter till the meeting of August 6, and had no time to examine it or he would not have supported it.
  29. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 2.
  30. Ibid. 27,820, p. 41.
  31. Additional MSS. 27,820, pp. 132-8.
  32. Ibid. 27,820, p. 274.
  33. Cobbett had agitated the question: see also 1834, Comm. on Handloom Weavers, qq. 973 et seq. 5560-66. This committee made some vague statements on the question in the report, p. xv.
  34. E.g. at Bolton, Bradford, Rochdale, Oldham, Bury.
  35. Additional MSS. 27,820, pp. 272-4. Northern Star November 17, 1838.
  36. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 260.
  37. Ibid. 27,820. p. 287.
  38. Ibid. 27,820, p. 292.
  39. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 295.
  40. O'Connor was uninvited. His habit of intruding where he was not required was a cause of immense friction, as he was seldom content to be passive, and sometimes diverted meetings to purposes for which they were never intended.
  41. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 304. Northern Star, November 17.
  42. Northern Star, November 17.
  43. Northern Star, November 24.
  44. Additional MSS. 27,820, p. 324.
  45. Ibid. 27,820, pp. 327-41.