Sunday, 27 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and Slavery 'distinction without a difference' 1

In the 1820s and 1830s, working class newspapers and journals were highly critical of members of the anti-slavery societies who were dedicated to freeing black slaves in the colonies and yet were blindly insensitive to the exploitation of white workers at home. It was difficult for many middle class abolitionists to equate wage slavery with chattel slavery. Yet the more they publicised the appalling conditions of slavery, the more likely it was that British workers would see themselves as caught in similar conditions. By the early 1830s, the leaders of working class radicalism recognised that it would be to their advantage to capitalise on the achievement of the abolitionists in awakening sympathies for the downtrodden and to do this by copying abolitionist strategies. Workers’ cries of enslavement, in turn, forced abolitionist attention to miseries at home. Since the late 1960s, studies[1] of the anti-slavery movement have increasingly demonstrated the extent to which abolitionists and supporters of reform for workers recognised their causes to be philosophically and pragmatically inseparable. However, there is little that considers Chartism and anti-slavery[2]. It is with this issue that this chapter is concerned.

From hostility to sympathy

The response of middle class abolitionists to the political claims of Chartism and to the plight of workers in the 1830s was as varied as the attitudes of working class radicals towards them. Some remained unsympathetic; others were concerned but did little concrete; and, many were involved in extending charity to the poor. Yet a surprising number of abolitionists went much further than this even though their analyses of the causes of and solutions to working class distress varied considerably. Some abolitionists were confirmed Malthusians concerned with reducing over-population; other advocated assisted emigration and home colonies to make the surplus population self-sustaining on the land; while many were supporters of the repeal of the Corn Laws that, they believed, favoured producers over consumers. There were few prominent abolitionists who did not favour increasing educational opportunities for the working class. The most radical position for abolitionists was publicly to endorse the Chartist programme and a significant number adopted this stance. Chartism created a political climate in which the developing arguments about the relationship between black slavery and white wage slavery came to a head. There was even a national debate about whether a slave or a factory worker was more oppressed. The immediate result was an intensification of the hostility and rivalry between abolitionists and Chartists and there were many attempts by Chartists to disrupt anti-slavery meetings. However, it was out of these spirited and often hostile exchanges that sympathies and a sense of common purpose slowly, if temporarily developed.

This process was aided by abolitionists and Chartists sharing some common political roots. Around 1800, many of the active members of the society to abolish the slave trade were also involved in calls for parliamentary reform and an extension of the franchise. Granville Sharp, for example, was well aware of the connection between black slavery in America and white slavery at home. He argued that as long as slavery remained in the West Indies, working people in general ‘would inevitably be involved by degrees in the same horrid slavery and depression; for that is always the base whenever slavery is tolerated[3]. His fear was that black slaves brought to England might create an unemployment problem that would threaten the jobs of free labourers that were already ‘approaching slavery’ because arbitrary legislation had gradually elevated property rights over personal rights[4]. Major John Cartwright was equally convinced that slavery in any form violated and degraded all humanity, a view expressed in a letter to Samuel Whitbread in 1814[5]: ‘Why the people of England should not stand forward with as much unanimity in defence of their own freedoms as that of the negroes, I must be slow to believe. It does not accord with my own experience and is contrary to reason’. Between the 1790s and the early 1830s, abolitionists had some success in obtaining support from the working class, largely though petitions and boycott campaigns and this provided a useful basis for cooperation between abolitionists and Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s.

Although radical writers such as William Cobbett talked of society in terms of ‘Masters and Slaves’ in the years after the end of the wars with France, it was not until the 1830s that ‘anti-slavery’ became a central feature of radical discourse. Richard Oastler[6] used the image of ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ when he confronted the issue of child labour in 1830: ‘The very streets which receive the droppings of an ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ are every morning wet by the tears of innocent victims at the accursed shrine of avarice, who are compelled (not by the cart-whip of the negro slave-driver) but by the dread of the equally appalling thong or strap of the over-looker….The nation is now most resolutely determined that negroes shall be free. Let them, however, not forget that Britons have common rights with Afric’s sons…’ The subsequent campaign for reform gained widespread support among working class radicals and among middle class humanitarians who recognised contradictions between calls for the end to slavery and the conditions under which many working people laboured. For example, on 6th October 1831, the Huddersfield Short Time Committee sent out a circular to all trade unions, sick-benefit clubs and friendly societies in the district: ‘Is it not a shame and disgrace that, in a land called “the land of the Bibles”, children of a tender age should be torn from their beds by six in the morning, and confined, in pestiferous factories, till eight in the evening? Ten hours a day, with eight on Saturdays, is our motto - may it be yours. Gentlemen, let us rouse ourselves from lethargy and carelessness, and rally round the principles of humanity, with an irresistible voice, demand the immediate curtailment of the hours of factory labour.’

Brougham, Martineau and the 1834 Poor Law: fighting for and against

However, it was the agitation against the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act that provided a rallying point for those who believed that working people were indeed slaves and no better off than the slaves in the West Indies or the United States. One of the central arguments against the institution of slavery was that it allowed families to be torn apart. This was not lost on the opponents of the 1834 Act with its segregation of husbands, wives and children in separate wards in the workhouse. English workers, like slaves lost control over their own family life, an analogy that spokesmen for the working class used to considerable effect. At a meeting in Manchester in 1836, Joseph Rayner Stephens waved a document that, he said, illustrated the revival of slavery in Great Britain: a bill of sale for a whole family forced to move from their home to work in a factory, a situation only made possible by the Poor Law[7]. The Operative reported that a ‘Children’s Friend Society’ had taken English children to South Africa for sale[8]. The Birmingham Journal satirised the ‘liberty’ of an English labourer as the privilege of migrating from a parish where he was barely provided for to one where he would starve[9]. Michael Sadler pleaded with his fellow MPs to give English children at least as much consideration as they gave to adult West Indian slaves. At a public meeting in support of Sadler’s Ten Hours Bill, people carried placards with such slogans as ‘No white slavery’ and ‘Sadler and the abolition of slavery at home and abroad’[10].

Radical anger turned particularly on those anti-slavery leaders who were members of the Whig government and had a hand in creating the new Poor Law. Henry Brougham[11] as Lord Chancellor and Nassau Senior who had a major role in drafting the law, were prime targets along with Harriet Martineau who J.R. Stephens called ‘their female assistant’. As well as being abolitionists, all were well-known Malthusians who believed that the working class must limit its numbers if conditions were too improve and it seemed to many radicals that the decision to segregate men and women in the workhouse was an inept attempt to enforce birth control. Certainly it was Senior[12] who advised Brougham that conditions in the workhouses should be as disagreeable as possible and it was small wonder that they were promptly dubbed ‘Brougham’s Bastilles’. The Northern Star thundered that Brougham had now joined the ranks of those peers who lived on the venality and prostitution of the country[13]. The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, published by Henry Hetherington included a striking cartoon of the greedy Brougham eating a bowl of squirming little people, one of them impaled on the fork he lifted to his mouth[14]. There was little here to suggest any middle way between the anti-slavery movement and the growing power of Chartism and no doubt that the close association of well-known emancipationists with the passage and defence of the Poor Law did little to improve the abolitionist image in the eyes of working class radicals.

This is unfortunate since Brougham and especially Martineau saw more good in Chartism than they have generally been given credit for. Brougham had a long association with radical causes: his long support for working class education, his defence of civil liberties, attacks on the Corn Laws, opposition to flogging in the army and navy, his support for Queen Caroline in 1820 as well as his record of opposition to black slavery need to be seen in relation to his support for the Poor Laws. Harriet Martineau privately questioned the genuineness of his populist sympathies and pointed to his inconsistency on many issues. Yet on several occasions, Brougham gave the Chartists cause to be grateful. In 1838 and 1839, when the agitation for the Charter was at its height, Brougham was praised by the editors of The Charter and The Operative[15] for backing suffrage extension and the ballot and he did support their National Petition. He also submitted petitions for leniency on at least two occasions: one for the Glasgow spinners sentenced to transportation in 1837 and another for the Chartists arrested in the riots in 1839. However, on other occasions, Brougham’s opinion was more half-hearted and equivocal.

Ironically, the same thinking that led Harriet Martineau[16] to defend the Poor Law formed the basis of his Chartist sympathies. Her goal had always been to help the poor to help themselves, especially through education. Her Malthusianism was rooted in optimism that once the working class recognised that their fundamental problem was over-population and surplus labour, they would limit their own numbers[17]. This underpinned her support for the Poor Law. However, since many families were dependent on child labour to stay above the poverty line, she argued that the only way to end this situation was to pay men higher wages. Though unwilling to declare that English workers were slaves, Martineau’s attitude to their plight was much influenced by her growing involvement in the American abolitionist movement. She concluded that slaves could only be taught to use their freedom if they were actually free and similarly concluded that British workers could only become independent and self-respecting if they were allowed to exercise their own judgement. Given her views, it is not surprising that she saw Chartism as a legitimate protest movement, one that demanded reform if Britain was to escape violent social revolution. From her viewpoint, it was not O’Conner and the Chartists, who were to be feared but Whigs and Tories with their political complacency and unwillingness to countenance further reform. But while approving Chartist goals, she deplored the demagogy of such ‘Tory agitators’ as O’Conner, J.R. Stephens and Richard Oastler and the actions of those Chartists who led the Newport rising.

The attitudes of Brougham and Martineau to Chartism were grounded in support for the aims of the movement while opposing the worse excesses of those Chartists who saw direct action as the only effective means of achieving their goals. Neither was prepared to approve of threats to public order and to property. When Brougham characterised himself as a one-step-at-a-time reformer, he was restating the abolitionist position that the emancipation of the slaves would take time and, by extension that achieving the demands of the Chartists would also take time. In that respect, he had more in common with the artisanal radicalism of Francis Place and William Lovett than the proletarian, ‘mass platform’ radicalism of O’Connor.

There were, however, other prominent emancipationists who, using the slave comparison joined the Chartists in attacking the Poor Law. Edward Baines, editor of the Leeds Mercury attacked the separation of husbands and wives in workhouses. Samuel Roberts, one of the anti-slavery leaders in the Sheffield area asked, in letters to the editor of the Sheffield Iris wrote: ‘And is England come to this? Now is there a country in the world where SLAVERY like this was ever submitted to?’[18] Lord Morpeth’s campaign for election to Parliament from the West Riding included promises to amend the Poor Law (something radicals later criticised him for not doing) and once elected he presented a petition from Bradford spinners that asked for a reduction in working hours. Richard Oastler was the most prominent abolitionist fighting the Poor Law. His anti-slavery dated back to his youth and by the 1820s he joined the drive for complete emancipation in the West Indies. It led directly into his growing awareness that, when he pleaded for the far-off slave, similar evils existed on his own doorstep. Oastler was never officially a Chartist and Samuel Roberts and Edward Baines remained stubbornly anti-Chartist but their involvement in campaigns against parliamentary bills and government policies helped to build up public interest in what Chartism had to offer.


[1] Howard Temperley British Antislavery 1833-1870, University of South Carolina Press, 1972 and Christine Bolt The Anti-Slavery Movement and Reconstruction: A study of Anglo-American Cooperation 1833-1877, Oxford University Press, 1969 mention that some abolitionists, notably Joseph Sturge, were not insensitive to working class interests but the relationship had yet to be studied in detail. Patricia Hollis ‘Anti-Slavery and British Working-Class Radicalism in the Years of Reform’, in Christine Bolt and Seymour Drescher (eds.) Anti-Slavery, Religion and Reform, Dawson Press, 1980, pages 294-315 restates the traditional argument of working class antipathy to the anti-slavery movement. David Turley The Culture of English Antislavery 1780-1860, Routledge, 1991, pages 182-187 and 190-194 makes clear links with Chartism

[2] G.D.H. Cole Chartist Portraits, Macmillan, 1940 included a portrait of Joseph Sturge in his biographies.

[3] Letter from Sharp to Mr Lloyd (Gray’s Inn) for Dr Drummond, the Archbishop of York, 30th July 1772, Granville Sharp Letterbook, York Minster

[4] This view was expressed in Granville Sharp An Appendix to the Second Edition of Mr Lofft’s Observations on a Late Publication entitles “A Dialogue on the Actual State of Parliaments”’, 1783 and The Legal Means of Political Reformation, 8th ed., 1797.

[5] Cartwright to Samuel Whitbread, 30th August 1814, printed in Frances D, Cartwright (ed.) The Life and Correspondence of Major Cartwright, two volumes, 1826, volume II, pages 80-83.

[6] Cecil Driver Tory Radical: A Life of Richard Oastler, OUP, 1946, pages 36-48. J.T. Ward  The Factory Movement 1830-1850, Macmillan, 1962 is the most detailed study though it has, in part, been superseded by R. Gray The Factory Question and Industrial England 1830-1860, Cambridge University Press, 1996

[7] Alfred [Samuel H.G. Kydd] The History of the Factory Movement from the Year 1802, to the Enactment of the Ten Hours’ Bill in 1847, two volumes, 1857, reprinted August M. Kelley, 1966, volume 2, pages 67-72 and 88-89.

[8] The Operative, 5th May 1839.

[9] Birmingham Journal, 13th January 1838.

[10] Alfred [Samuel H.G. Kydd] The History of the Factory Movement from the Year 1802, to the Enactment of the Ten Hours’ Bill in 1847, two volumes, 1857, reprinted August M. Kelley, 1966, volume 1, pages 198-199 and 254-255 and volume 2, pages 60-61.

[11] Brougham has been ill-served by biographers and historians have to rely on Brougham’s posthumous autobiography The Life and Times of Henry, Lord Brougham, Written by Himself and edited by his son, three volumes, London 1871-72. Chester New The Life of Henry Brougham to 1830, Oxford University Press, 1961 and Ronald K. Huch Henry, Lord Brougham: the later years, 1830-1868: the ‘great actor’, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993 are of variable quality. E.P. Thompson in his The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, 1963, page 604 saw Brougham as playing a ‘ritual role’ in the radicalism of the period.

[12] ‘Letter of 14th September 1832, to Lord Chancellor Brougham on Poor Law Reform’, in Leon S. Levy Nassau W. Senior 1790-1864, David & Charles, 1970, Appendix X, pages 247-254.

[13] Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, 31st March 1838.

[14] London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, 23rd April 1837.

[15] The Chartist, 19th May 1839; The Operative, 23rd December 1838 and 30th June 1839.

[16] On Martineau, see Vera Wheatley The Life and Work of Harriet Martineau, Fairtown, New Jersey, 1957, pages 103-105 and R.K. Webb Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian, Heinemann, 1960, pages 130-132.

[17] On this issue see: Elaine Freedgood ‘Banishing panic: Harriet Martineau and the popularization of political economy’, Victorian Studies, volume 39, (1995), pages 33-53.

[18] Sheffield Iris, 4th September 1838 and 11th December 1838.

1 comment:

Ronald K. Huch said...

This is a strong piece on the way
certain "radicals" responded to
Chartism and the New Poor Law. It
is especially strong on Brougham,
who, despite his many changes of
direction, remained a hero to
workers throughout his life. I am
happy to have some of the cartoon
references to Brougham, always a
favorite of political cartoonists
during his entire life.