Saturday, 15 September 2007

Revisiting Chartist historiography: On Ethnicity

Some of the earliest histories of the movement and studies of the working class mentioned the issues of Irish immigrants’ relations with Chartism. Gammage[1] and Julius West[2] provided a few reference to an Irish immigrant presence in Chartism, mainly on the part of the Irish Confederates in 1848. However, neither of these historians offered any systematic treatment or considered analysis of the subject. Marx and Engels[3] and Mark Hovell[4] were even more neglectful. All three were quick to argue that Irish immigration had adversely affected the living conditions, habits, customs and unity of the working classes in England, but none of them investigated the issue of the Irish and Chartism. However, the issues of Irish immigrant relations with Chartism and the interactions of class and ethnicity have become subjects of detailed and extended research after 1950. The major problem with the early research was its uneven levels of coverage and sharply differing conclusions in relation to ethnicity and class. Edward Royle recognised the weak presence of Chartism within Ireland and the divisive and debilitating effects of O’Connell’s opposition to Chartism from the late 1830s, nevertheless concluded in 1981[5], “the Irish in England contributed an important element to Chartism at all levels.” Two decades earlier, Asa Briggs’ local studies contained brief reference to both conflicts between the O’Connellite Irish and the Chartists and to the period of short-lived unity between the Chartists and the Irish repealers in 1848[6].

Sandwiched between these two historians, J.T. Ward expressed, in 1973, what was becoming the conventional position of many historians[7]: “O’Connor…maintained his efforts to recruit proletarian Irish support. These inevitably involved detaching immigrants from the spell of his old enemy O’Connell…Certainly, many more Irishmen rallied to the repeal movement than to Chartism. The Roman Catholic priesthood was heavily involved and there was clerical talk of refusing the sacraments to Chartists.” Ward’s conclusion echoed that expressed by J.H. Treble in the same year in what was to become an influential article. Contrary to the views of O’Higgins, Treble strongly argued that the official opposition of the Catholic Church and the massively popular O’Connell to Chartism ensured that the vast mass of immigrants were not favourably disposed towards or involved in the movement before 1848[8].

Dorothy Thompson has presented a fundamental and convincing critique of Ward and Treble[9]. She has pointed out that Treble relied excessively on ‘official’ sources and the statements of the leaders of the Catholic Church and Irish organisations and that the adverse effects of such pronouncements on Irish immigrants had not be sufficiently established. The Chartists always expressed common cause with the Irish repealers especially those rooted in the traditions of the United Irishmen. Instances of ethnic conflict during the Chartist period had been inflated and the forces making for working class unity understated. Thompson states[10], “Hostility to the Irish on ethnic and religious grounds certainly existed among the common people, but among the Chartists a feeling of community based on common work experience and a joint feeling of oppression was always very much stronger…” She argues that there was a very considerable Irish presence in the Chartist movement and for a time at least class solidarity and ethnic identity were perfectly compatible companions. Thompson[11] also offered a highly original and challenging thesis that the failure to construct an effective and durable alliance between the Chartists and the nationalists before 1848 foundered more on the Irish rejection of a democratic programme than on the ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’ attitudes of the mainland Chartists or on personal disagreements between O’Connor and O’Connell. She argues that historians had previously viewed Irish nationalism as a monolithic entity whereas in reality its structure was far more subtle and divided. She distinguishes between the republican, democratic and revolutionary nationalism derived from the Jacobinism of the United Irishmen in the 1790s and the more moderate, ‘moral force’, anti-trade union, socially hierarchical and Catholic-related nationalism of O’Connell that believed in the continued rule of Ireland by the British Crown. Therefore, it was a combination of the control exercised by O’Connell over the pre-1848 nationalist movement in Ireland and on the British mainland and the suppression of the Jacobin tradition in Ireland itself that underpinned the failure of Chartists and nationalists to make common cause.

Finally, something needs to be said about Feargus O’Connor. The historiography of O’Connor has traditionally heaped condemnation and ridicule on his head. From Gammage until the early 1980s, historians from both the Fabian and Marxists schools have compared O’Connor’s alleged irrationality and anti-industrialism unfavourably with William Lovett’s rational and progressive views. For Fabian historians, O’Connor was the nemesis for Chartism because he went too far in his ‘physical force’ demands; to Marxists historians, he did not go far enough, bottling out when it came to the threat of revolution. While these historians recognised O’Connor’s oratorical and intellectual skills, they focused on his self-centredness, empty boastfulness, erratic behaviour and lack of reflection and steadiness. Mark Hovell saw him as “the only leading Chartist who was devoid alike of idealism and of statesmanship” and as “a blustering, egotistical, blarneying, managing but intellectually and morally very unreliable Irishman, who probably never did an honest day’s work in his life”[12]. To Julius West[13], O’Connor was the ‘Dictator’ who had “most of the qualities of a great demagogue and all the defects of a lower-grade politician.” Dorothy Thompson and James Epstein[14] have done much to restore proper historical accuracy and balance to O’Connor’s role in Chartism and rescuing him from historical ridicule. They convincingly show that O’Connor forged a national movement and, by means of the Northern Star, his leadership and political skill, held the movement together for some ten years. This was an unprecedented feat in terms of early nineteenth century popular radical movements. Ethnic, regional, local, personality, skill, income and many other differences and divisions threatened the national unity of Chartism and many of these differences had prevented the development of a durable national political radical movement in the past. O’Connor, with his single-minded commitments to universal manhood suffrage, working class independence and hostility to all oppressors of the ‘people’, not only exerted massive popular appeal that transcended differences within the working classes, but also prevented Chartism from splintering into all manner of ‘isms’ and tendencies. In addition to his shrewd and capable political and leadership qualities, O’Connor was in all probability far less egotistical and boastful than usually portrayed.

In 1996, Miles Taylor[15] published a historiographical review of Chartism in which he argued that our understanding of the movement has stagnated since the publication of important research by Gareth Stedman Jones and Dorothy Thompson in 1983–4. Taylor suggests that the new cultural history of politics (or the ‘linguistic turn’) is to blame for this ‘impasse’, and argues that scholars should consolidate the work of Stedman Jones and Thompson. Writing three years later, Andrew Messner suggests[16] that Chartist historians should continue to engage with contemporary approaches. The new political history sheds light on some persistent problems of interpretation that Taylor passes over. It also raises the possibility of extending the study of Chartism into the colonial realm, an area historians have not yet seriously broached. To illustrate this point, he provided a sketch of the significance of Chartist political culture in one episode of protest in the Australian colony of Victoria in 1853.


[1] R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, London, 1969, pages 297-299 and 332-336.

[2] Julius West A History of the Chartist Movement, London, 1920, pages 79, 236 and 252.

[3] K. Marx and F. Engels On Britain, Moscow, 1953, pages 61, 94-95, 111-112, 123-127 and 504-506.

[4] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester University Press, 1918, pages 14, 80 and 81.

[5] Edward Royle Chartism Longman, 1981, page 67.

[6] Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 50-51, 394-395.

[7] J.T. Ward Chartism, Batsford, 1973, pages 145-146, 211-212.

[8] J.H. Treble ‘O’Connor, O’Connell and the Attitudes of Irish immigrants towards Chartism in the North of England 1838-48’, in J. Butt and I.F. Clarke (eds.) The Victorians and Social Protest, Newton Abbot, 1973, pages 33-70, R. O’ Higgins ‘The Irish Influence in the Chartist Movement’, Past and Present, no. 20, (1961), pages 83-110.

[9] Dorothy Thompson ‘Ireland and the Irish in English Radicalism before 1850’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 120-151, reprinted in Dorothy Thompson Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993, pages 103-133.

[10] Dorothy Thompson Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993, page 104.

[11] Dorothy Thompson ‘Seceding from the Seceders: The Decline of the Jacobin Tradition in Ireland 1790-1850’, in Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993, pages 134-163.

[12] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester University Press, 1918, pages 67 and 194.

[13] Julius West A History of the Chartist Movement, London, 1920, page 84.

[14] James Epstein The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement 1832-1842, Croom Helm, 1982 is a clearly revisionist study though it effectively stops in 1842. His and John Belchem’s paper ‘The Nineteenth-Century Gentleman Leader Revisited’, originally published in 1997 is reprinted in a slightly modified version in James Epstein In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain, Stanford University Press, 2003, pages 126-145 places O’Connor is a broader context.

[15] M. Taylor ‘Re-thinking the Chartists: Searching for Synthesis in the Historiography of Chartism,’ The Historical Journal, volume 39 (1996), pages 479-495.

[16] Andrew Messner ‘Land, Leadership, Culture, and Emigration: some problems in Chartist historiography’, The Historical Journal, volume 42 (1999), pages 1093-1109.

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