Sunday, 16 September 2007

Revisiting Chartist historiography: Constitutionalism, Patriotism and 'force'

On Patriotism, the ‘Constitutional Idiom’ and Chartist rhetoric

The language of patriotism and constitutionalism runs through all Chartist rhetoric. It has led to a broadening of the historiographical debate on the nature of the movement. The notion of the ‘freeborn Englishmen’ was commonplace among eighteenth century middle class radicals, but was swiftly mobilised by working class radicals in the 1790s. Hugh Cunningham said[1], “The Chartists used the vocabulary of patriotism as a weapon of struggle, one which engaged with the enemy and whose recollection of the past incorporated a vision of the future.” In Chartism, the vocabulary of radical patriotism reached a new peak comparable with that of the 1790s. Words like ‘tyranny’, ‘chains’, ‘bondage’, ‘slavery’, ‘liberty’, ‘justice’ and ‘rights’ were used, making the point that English people were slaves in their own land. The language of patriotism not only drew on constitutional rights and slavery, but also on the familiar radical metaphor of the Gold Age before the Norman Yoke to evoke a lost English idyll and as a means of imagining a better future. It was the duty of good patriots, whether male or female, to resist. Chartist leaders, especially if they suffered imprisonment, were the ‘distinguished patriots’, ‘the noble minded patriots’, ‘the liberated patriots’ and, in the case of O’Connor ‘one of the greatest patriots the world ever saw’. The use of the metropolitan police in Bury was a ‘fresh outrage on ENGLISH RIGHTS and English Feelings’ and would never ‘bend the stubborn English Zeal of the men of Bury to so degrading a yoke’. Another English ‘right’ much claimed was the right to bear arms. Among the eight questions put to the people by the May Manifesto of the Chartist Convention of 1839 was “Whether, according to their old constitutional rights – a right which modern legislators would fain annihilate – they have prepared themselves with the arms of freemen to defends the laws and constitutional privileges their ancestors bequeathed to them?’

The Chartists were challenging the whole apparatus of the state, its economic foundations as well as its political and ideological buttresses. At the heart of this challenge was the claim that Parliament in no sense spoke for the people (hence the calling of the Convention) and that the government had usurped rights that were both natural and had been enjoyed by the English in the past. These rights were not only the political ones contained in the Charter but included rights to land, rights to enjoy themselves as they wanted, rights to possess arms, rights to food and drink. These rights were demanded in the language of patriotism. The Northern Liberator in 1839 said, “We will have no Malthusian ‘Marcus’ to poison the minds of the people with incitements to child-murder. We will have not Broughams and Martineaus to stigmatise marriage as a crime and charity as a folly! No; we are for the ancient laws of England.”

Many Chartist men employed a language of patriotism against the corruption of a social order that reduced the English worker to a ‘white slave’. One way of reversing this was to pay men a wage on which they could keep their families, including their wives. The women of industrial Bradford conjured up images of a rural paradise[2], “Where are now the honest, independent, artisans – the manly peasantry and the small farmers, with their smiling wives and cheerful families of once merrie England”. The propaganda effect of their picture of rural health, the antithesis of the grimy city, suggests a world turned upside-down by the ‘slavery’ of the factories and the separation and deliberate segregation of families under the new Poor Law. Chartist women saw it as their patriotic duty to campaign for political reform on the grounds of restoring the ‘natural’ family, in which the wife would be able to return to her rightful place in the home.

The vocabulary of patriotism was at its strongest in the first phase of Chartism. As the crisis of 1839-40 passed and as the slump of 1842 bit hard, the Chartist analysis of the present and the future became more economic and social, more determined to dwell on the peculiarities of industrial capitalism rather than on the peculiarities of the English. After the early 1840s, the language of patriotism begins to pass out of the mainstream of English radical movements. It ceased to be the way in which the English instinctively expressed their opposition to government.

Within radicalism from the 1790s through to 1850, there were two competing ideological positions[3]. First, there were the ideas associated with Thomas Paine, especially those in his Rights of Man. At the heart of Paine’s thesis was a move away from strictly historical and constitutionalist arguments to a more exclusive reliance on natural rights and rationalist theory. This essentially republican[4] position suggested that it was necessary to break political links with the past, reverse existing arrangements of power and essentially begin the world anew. Secondly, arguments that based democratic political and social claims on historical precedent and the predominance of closely related strategies of constitutionalist action. This was most evident outside London, in the provincial manufacturing centres of the North and Midlands. Working class radicals may have revered the memory of Tom Paine, but as often as not they ignored his arguments against invoking the legitimating power of the past. They turned more often to a radicalised British constitutionalism for their own democratic claims and actions.

The division between these two positions was not clear-cut. The distinction between arguments based on historical precedent and those based on natural rights was rarely drawn. O’Connor moved with no sense of contradiction from asserting the working classes’ natural right to be represented in Parliament to claiming that universal male suffrage and annual parliaments were[5] “formerly a portion of the boasted constitution of our country; which is considered the envy of surrounding nations.”

The constitutionalist position was often most powerfully invoked within a defensive setting. The tone of the early Chartist protest was set to a significant extent by the rhetoric of violence brought to the radical platform from the anti-Poor Law movement. The first calls for the people to arm came from the northern anti-Poor Law leaders such as J.R. Stephens, who told his followers that he intended to attend the Chartist Convention as “the armed delegate of an armed people”. The call to arms was nearly always couched in defensive language: the people were arming in defence of constitutional rights and liberties against the unconstitutional actions of a centralising and undemocratic state. From the winter of 1838 through to the summer of 1839, there is evidence of widespread arming in the industrial districts of England and Wales in anticipation of an imminent, decisive confrontation to take place between the people and their rulers. Most of the convention felt that the country was not prepared for an armed showdown and moved to reject plans for a national ‘holiday’ or general strike. Whether this decision reflected a lack of revolutionary nerve remains an open question.

Behind assertions of the right to arm stood a more fundamental claim, the right of legitimate resistance to tyranny, a view expressed by John Locke in the late seventeenth century. Resistance was a defensive right, a response to government oppression. The government rather than the people was responsible for this situation. Indeed, the strategy of popular constitutionalism centred on testing the supposed contractual relationship between governments and governed. This relationship was tested through large-scale petitioning campaigns[6], often seeking legitimacy for actions that went beyond constitutional formalities in the event of their demands being rejected. Petitioning was central to the strategies of popular radical mobilisation and was of fundamental importance to the Chartists in 1839, 1842 and 1848. Chartism came together through huge public demonstrations called to adopt the National Petition and to elect delegates to the Chartist Convention. The National Petition was widely seen as symbolising the people’s will. Parliament’s rejection of the petition would signal a breach of the contract between government and governed, the point at which the democratically elected convention might decide what action to take in defence of constitutional liberty. It could assert its role as ‘anti-parliament’, a possible substitute for the corrupt assembly of the ruling elite.

The Chartist strategy in 1839 turned on the confrontation between the rival authorities of the convention and Parliament. In effect, the leaders of the movement sought to create a situation of ‘alternate powers’. They wished to develop autonomous working class institutions, of which the convention was the most important, capable of offering an alternative to the existing structures of state power. The problem for the convention in 1839 and for the later conventions in 1842 and 1848 was what it should do when the petition was rejected. It was here that the language of patriotism and the constitutional idiom collided. The question was not whether the constitutionalist position was unfounded but whether by taking the ultimate step towards revolutionary action, it contradicted the language of patriotism or whether revolutionary action was, in fact patriotic action.

Moral and physical force Chartism

The notion that Chartists were either proponents of moral or physical force can be traced back to the earliest writings on the subject. That it is a simplistic and, on occasions unsatisfactory division did not prevent it from remaining an important feature of the historiography of the movement until the 1980s. The main problem for historians is that Chartism lasted a long time and that the social composition of the movement changed. In addition, as events unfolded Chartists who held a moral force position could easily drift into the physical force camp and then later return to their original position. Political debate is marked by inconsistencies of position and the Chartists were no exception to this rule. Did historians dispense with the use of the two terms as a way of explaining differences in the movement too easily?

The major difficulty is that the ideological roots of the moral and physical force positions have not been fully explored. This can be explained if the moral and physical force positions are seen primarily as tactical postures grounded in persuasion (and arguably intimidation) and in the rhetoric and reality of direct action. In this scenario, it does not matter which of the two competing ideological standpoints (republican and constitutionalist) Chartists belonged to as their position was essentially a pragmatic response to objective circumstances. A second problem lies in what moral and physical force actually meant to contemporaries and subsequently to historians. This is linked to the inherently ambiguous notion of ‘ulterior measures’ that Chartists often threatened but rarely acted on and to the extent to which Chartism was ‘revolutionary’.

The republican ideology associated with Thomas Paine was ‘revolutionary’ in both its aims and methods. It sought to break with the traditions of the past, something that Edmund Burke correctly recognised in his Reflections of the Revolution in France as early as 1790[7]. The constitutionalist idiom had similarly clear aims in its desire for an extension to the franchise and the creation of a democratic system. It was, however, the distinctions within the constitutional idiom that were of greater significance. Though some Chartists accepted the revolutionary tradition of Paine as the way forward to achieve a democratic system of government, most did not. The question for the majority of Chartists was how best to achieve their political aims. It is here that an important distinction can be identified. There were those Chartists who took an ‘exclusive’ view of the movement. They inherited much of the artisanal radicalism of the early nineteenth-century in seeing change as being best achieved through the actions of an exclusive group of skilled and educated working-class radicals who could articulate demands and negotiate on behalf of the rest of the working class. A contrary view saw radicalism as ‘inclusive’, involving all in the working-class in the movement and, as a result gaining significant legitimacy to speak for all. ‘Inclusive’ radicalism built on the notion of the ‘mass platform’ and saw change being achieved through ‘mass’ action. In many respects, those who adopted the ‘exclusive’ position can be seen as advocating ‘moral-force’ while those who took an ‘inclusive’ view, ‘physical-force’.

The last ten years have seen major developments in the historiography of Chartism often associated with the ‘linguistic turn’ (Chartist language and Chartist rhetoric) and reactions to it. Of particular importance has been the creation of the Centre for the Study of Chartism at Staffordshire University directed by Owen Ashton, which houses the collected paper of Dorothy Thompson. In addition to annual Chartist Day conferences, much of the research it has generated is published by Merlin Press. These books have raised important questions about the nature of Chartism at national and local levels and their impact on the developing historiography of the movement is difficult to assess. What is clear is that historians now have a more rounded picture of the movement, as both a united national campaign and a series of diverse local responses. The arguments sketched above demonstrate the vibrancy of the debate and the extent to which they challenge established orthodoxies.

It is, however, to move beyond the somewhat parochial concerns of much British historiography and address issues being raised by historians especially in Australia about the global influence of Chartism. Chartism had an international dimension and was part of a broader European radical movement but its global impact seems to be grounded in assumption. The precise relationship between Chartism and constitutional developments in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and vice versa has been insufficiently explored though some useful beginnings have been made. Causal links have been tentatively established but the particular nature of those links remains unclear and the nature of ‘Colonial Chartism’ under-developed.

[1] Hugh Cunningham ‘The language of patriotism 1750-1914’, in History Workshop, volume 12, (1981), pages 17-18 and in Raphael Samuel (ed.) Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity, volume 1: History and Politics, Routledge, 1989, page 70.

[2] Northern Star, 19th February 1842.

[3] For what follows see James Epstein ‘The Constitutionalist Idiom’, in Past and Present, volume 122 (1989) and in a slightly revised version in his Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual and Symbol in England, 1790-1850, Oxford University Press, 1994, pages 3-28.

[4] Frank Prochaska The Republic of Britain, 1760 to 2000, Oxford University Press, 2000, pages 33-97 provides a, not entirely satisfactory discussion of the impact of republicanism on Chartism.

[5] Leeds Times, 19th December 1835.

[6] Some Chartists thought that petition for rights was a contradiction in terms. Paine had argued that rights were things that were not granted to the people, they simply were. In addition, petitioning Parliament implied some acceptance of its constitutional position and of the constitutional significance of petitioning to radicals.

[7] The most recent edition is by J.C.D. Clark Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France: A Critical Edition, Stanford University Press, 2001, especially pages 69-112.

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