Sunday, 18 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Final Phase 4

It is possible to consider the development of Chartism after 1848 in several ways. Some historians, notably Dorothy Thompson and John Saville, argue that the defeat of Chartism left popular politics polarised between middle class radicalism and an increasingly apolitical working class. Others, for example Margot Finn and Gregory Claeys, suggest that the later Chartist leadership became increasingly influenced by republican and socialist ideas that were hostile to mainstream radicalism. A third approach, argued by Miles Taylor, maintains that the Chartist leadership responded to the defeat of the movement and the loss of mass support, by being reconciled to the mainstream of radical and liberal politics. Historians face major problems in assessing the geography and significance of Chartism after 1848. As Harney wrote in 1851[1] “The Chartism of ’51 is not that of 1839 or 1848…The outward and visible form of Chartism perished in 1848…Defeated, disappointed of the political victory they had hoped for in 1848, the hard-working thinkers turned their attention to social questions.”

There are few studies of later Chartism at local level. Many contemporary writers ended their detailed accounts of the movement in 1848 and newspapers often ignored radical activities in the later period. David Jones[2] cites research on Wales and the Black Country suggesting that the resilience of Chartism has been underestimated. In North Wales and in parts of the West Country the movement may have entered a new phase. Chartists like A.W. Blacker of Torquay, Thomas Clewes of Stockport, Joseph Alderson of Bradford and Walter Pringle in Edinburgh campaigned with traditional vigour. Halifax was a particularly vibrant centre of later Chartism. The NCA, revived in 1849, never had more than 4,000-5,000 members during the following decade and perhaps many fewer. The executive and district councils lacked financial resources. The movement disintegrated further.

In April 1848, Lovett formed the People’s League supported by Miall, Vincent and Lowery. Two days later Cooper, Hetherington and Holyoake[3] founded a rival People’s Charter Union. Both were moderate organisations reflecting the great pains some Chartists took after 1848 to recast reform politics in a favourable light. The People’s League planned to align Chartism with an overhaul of the tax system but soon foundered. The Union was soon involved in reviving the agitation against the remaining stamp duty especially after March 1849 when the Newspaper Stamp Abolition Committee was formed. The NSAC gained support from several prominent radicals including Place and Holyoake. In February 1851, it became the Association for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge, essentially a middle class pressure group. The original Union had already disappeared with the failure of Cooper’s plan to organise individual petitions.

Continuing newspaper taxes were of particular interest to Chartists after 1848 largely because of the large number of Chartist and radical journals. Chartist literacy flourished. Gammage drew attention to the variety of publications, many often short-lived[4]. O’Brien ran The Reformer and then The Power of the Pence in which he put forward his individualistic socialist views. Others edited ultra-radical journals generally with a republican slant. Harney produced the Red Republican in 1850, the Democratic Review between 1849 and 1851, the Friend of the People in 1850-51 and again in 1852 and The English Republic between 1851 and 1855. Jones edited Notes to the People between 1851 and 1852 and the People’s Paper for six years after 1852. Passmore Edwards’ Public Good had a pacifist slant. Local journals also flourished like the Voice in the East in Wisbech and the Progressionist in Buckingham edited by Gammage himself. These publications reflect the intellectual maelstrom that Chartism had become with ever-increasing diversity of views among the declining Chartist ranks.

This diversity continued to weaken the NCA and O’Connor found his supremacy in the movement under considerable pressure. He became increasingly inconsistent and this was reflected in his frequent changes of mind[5]. He continued to be vindictive towards real and imagined enemies. He also vacillated over middle class alliances. In May 1849, Joseph Hume again called for household suffrage or ‘Little Charter’ movement and was roundly condemned by O’Connor. Yet, the following month he unsuccessfully asked Hume to adopt the Charter. Neither Hume’s proposal in June nor O’Connor’s own motion for the Charter the following month met with widespread support in the Commons. O’Connor then proceeded to collaborate with the middle class Household Suffrage Association. Such links disgusted some Chartists loyalists and further exacerbated divisions in the movement. In December 1849, a metropolitan conference of twenty-eight delegates met without national representation. It elected a provisional executive and then proceeded to argue over O’Connor’s middle class links. Harney joined O’Connor’s opponents and was dismissed from the Star. The following month, he formed his own organisation, the National Reform League for the Peaceful Regeneration of Society. Divisions widened further and O’Connor’s remaining allies finally lost control of the NCA. In March 1850, the short-lived rival National Charter League, which favoured links with middle class organisations, was formed. O’Connor sought to keep a foot in both camps. When, on 11th July he again unsuccessfully raised the Charter in the Commons his preamble contained clear socialist overtones. This was the last time the Commons debated the issue.

The gulf between the Chartist leaders was now scarcely disguised. Attempts to weld the NCA, NRL, Fraternal Democrats, trade unions and the Social Reform League into the National Charter and Social Reform Union in 1850 failed. The major reason for this was the growing importance of socialism. Jones believed that a new unity could be achieved on socialist lines. He saw Charter Socialism as an organisation on strictly class lines against capitalism. Over optimistic as usual, he opposed any deviation. Co-operatives, trade unions, Christian Socialists, teetotal Chartists and republicans were all viewed as ‘Sham Radicals’. O’Connor was, however, not yet prepared to relinquish control of the movement and held a conference in Manchester to organise a ‘perfect union’. This provoked further division. Jones and the executive of the NCA were opposed but O’Connor pressed ahead gaining the support of a Manchester rally on 17th November. The division was now clear. O’Connor and his allies stood for ‘the Charter pure and simple’ while Jones and his supporters argued for ‘the Charter and something more’.

The Manchester conference met on 26th January 1851 and consisted of only eight delegates. It achieved nothing though both O’Connor and Jones attended to make their case. The intellectual debate had, however, left its mark. At the Chartist Convention in the spring of 1851 the Charter Socialists scored a substantial victory. The Convention began to assemble on 31st March in London. Many districts could not afford to send delegates and the NCA was weakened by a number of secessions. Only thirty of the planned forty-nine delegates turned up and many lacked political experience. They rejected the ‘nothing but the Charter’ approach, opposed any middle class collaboration, planned a new petition and agreed that Chartists candidates would contest the next elections and that the organisation would be extended among trade unions, various working groups and the Irish. These proposals were nothing new. However, the Convention went on to adopt a new social programme. This sought to combine campaigning for the Charter with Poor Law reform, calls for state education, price controls, currency and taxation reform and nationalisation of land and the mines. The Convention dissolved on 10th April 1851 leaving the executive to re-state its policies. But, as Ward states[6], “The brave new world was not to be.” The NCA only had around 4,000 members and they were divided. It was not in a position to revivify the increasingly moribund movement.

Ernest Jones was the dominant Chartist figure of the 1850s. However, he never achieved the supremacy over the movement that O’Connor had achieved in the 1840s. Many found it difficult to accept Jones’ innate optimism. This was already evident in the National Convention of 1848 and became more obvious in the following years. Jones inherited a movement already fatally flawed. Death and emigration had decimated the local Chartist leadership. Some members dropped out of formal Chartist completely and turned to other movements. In the North and Midlands there were rival attractions, like the revival of agitation for factory reform that seemed to offer improvements for working people. Local politics provided a worthwhile substitute for success on the national stage. Chartist methods and energies were injected into the council chamber and parliamentary elections. In his fight to retain a separate Chartist identity Jones faced considerable opposition from those who were prepared to ‘go for less’ but also from those opposed to his personal vision or Chartist politics.

Jones headed the poll in the winter elections to the NCA executive in 1851. His increasingly dictatorial manner alienated supporters like Harney. Even the ‘left’ within Chartism was divided. Jones now fought to dominate the movement. He backed a call for a convention to reorganise the movement, which met in Manchester from 17th to 21st May 1852. The end of the movement was protracted. Jones urged working class unity in support of the Preston cotton strikers in the winter of 1853 and called for a labour parliament to lead an allegedly reviving Chartism. The parliament, with some forty members, met in Manchester between 6th and 18th March 1854. A ‘Mass Movement’ was planned but, by August, it was pointed out that as far as the mass of the population was concerned that this had been another failure. Elections to the executive that year appear to have been fixed. Several districts refused to recognise the executive as a result and what remained of Chartism was further divided. Chartist audiences declined. Jones’ approach became increasingly dictatorial, explicitly so in early 1856. A last convention was held in 1858 with forty-one delegates. Jones renewed his demands for the six points but circumstances and his supporters induced him to take his stand on manhood suffrage alone. The convention saw the birth of the Political Reform League and the practical end of the Chartist movement. The NCA staggered on for two more years. By 1860 Chartism was, finally, dead[7].

[1] Friend of the People, volume 19, 1851.

[2] David Jones Chartism and the Chartists, pages 168-9.

[3] J. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume i, Macmillan, 1972, pages 182-189 for biography.

[4] R.G. Gammage The History of the Chartist Movement, from its Commencement Down to the Present Times, 1st ed., 1855, 2nd ed., Newcastle, 1894, pages 345-46.

[5] The growing inconsistency in O’Connor’s actions may well reflect the onset of psychological problems or might have been associated with the onset of syphilis. He was eventually taken into Dr Harrington Tuke’s asylum at Chiswick convinced he was a State prisoner. He died in 1855.

[6] Ward Chartism, page 228.

[7] Ward Chartism, pages 235-244 provides an invaluable discussion of what happened to the leading Chartists after Chartism.

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