Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and Slavery 'distinction without difference 2

Emancipation as radical stimulus

The passage of the Emancipation Act in 1833 provided an ideal opportunity to contrast what was being done for black slaves with the neglect shown to ‘white slaves’. Two features of the Act provided Chartists with ammunition to attack the government: the payment of £20 million compensation to slave owners and the apprenticeship system set up to prepare slaves for full freedom. This let Chartists point out that the government was doing more for black slaves than for white workers and that what was being done for slaves was at the expense of British workers. The Whigs were the focus for their attack but the Chartists also accused anti-slavery societies and anti-slavery leaders of hypocrisy. As in the case of the Poor Law, the propaganda seemed to put Chartists and abolitionists on opposite sides of the argument.

As soon as the Emancipation Act was passed, the Poor Man’s Guardian declared that the compensation money would be ‘extracted from the bones of the white slaves’ of Britain[1]. J.R. Stephens took the view that it was the labouring children who were paying the £20 million compensation so that adult black apprentices in Jamaica could enjoy an eight-hour day. Abolitionists exerted themselves in seeking enforcement of the Emancipation Act but they were, in general, unwilling to limit the hours for working children at home. The radical press repeatedly pointed out the conditions in which British apprentices lived and worked; how men in the army and navy were flogged much as slaves were; and, that after 1833 West Indian slaves had the prospect of complete freedom but that British workers had no such expectation. The impact on Chartism is evident in the words of the National Petition in 1838: ‘Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty, which has aggravated the painful feelings of our social degradation, by adding to them the sickening of still deferred hope.’[2]

In their attacks on the Whigs for compensating slave owners, the Chartists found that they had many abolitionist allies who argued that it was the slaves not the slave owners who deserved compensation. Immediately after the passage of the Emancipation Act, a protest statement to this effect was signed by many prominent abolitionists including Joseph Sturge. In parliament, Daniel O’Connell objected to both compensation and apprenticeship. The Glasgow Emancipation Society passed a resolution saying that all parts of the act should be fully enforced before any compensation should be paid and there were similar expressions of opposition from anti-slavery societies across the country[3]. Abolitionists were as outspoken in their opposition to compensation as were Bronterre O’Brien, Richard Oastler and Henry Hetherington. It was clear on this issue at least that Chartists and many abolitionists shared common ground.

The widespread support for emancipation meant that Chartists could not go too far in attacking the anti-slavery movement‘s shortcomings since this invited the accusation of being pro-slavery. Their strategy was to outflank the abolitionists by demonstrating that they were opposed to all types of slavery everywhere. This was apparent in ‘A Hint to Mr Buxton MP’ that appeared in the London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer edited by Henry Hetherington and in the Northern Liberator where the editor said that he hated slavery as much as anyone and blasted the House of Commons for voting to continue it under the guise of apprenticeship. Bronterre O’Brien, in a letter to the editor of the Northern Star, commended Brougham’s stand on apprenticeship but went on the recommend that if his Lordship really wanted to end slavery, he needed to look closer to home[4]. The dilemma the Chartists faced was that to call for the immediate ending of apprenticeship meant diverting efforts away from demands for manhood suffrage: the Northern Star actually came close to apologising for this[5]. Chartist newspapers took much the same position in emphasising that the issue was not a choice between chattel and wage slavery: O’Brien put it well when he wrote that to contrast white and black slavery was to create a ‘distinction without a difference’[6].

Beyond emancipation

Once apprenticeship in the West Indies was ended, anti-slavery activists were free to champion a new cause, Chartists sought to gain their support. Richard Oastler’s appeal in the Northern Star called on abolitionists now to help British working men ‘our cause being one and the same—they must now help us’[7]. Oastler recognised that the political momentum of the emancipation movement should be capitalised on and that loosening the shackles of black slaves would inevitably help loosen the bonds of white workers. It was, however, Joseph Sturge, the Birmingham Quaker abolitionist and a central figure in the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society who was critical in moving the debate towards an alliance to try to attain the Chartist goal of manhood suffrage[8]. He, along with several other abolitionists, was at the centre of the political manoeuvring between 1838 and 1842.

It is important to recognise that many Chartists had long been abolitionists and like earlier radicals such as Cartwright and Cobbett were fully aware of the indivisible nature of the issues of black and white slavery. William Lovett and John Collins were among the first to spell out its meaning for Chartism. When Lovett spoke of ‘Tyrants [who] delight to crush the yielding, suppliant slave’, he conjured up in one sweeping phrase images of slaveholding planters, factory overseers and upper-class bureaucrats[9]. Lovett, along with Hetherington and others, organised the London Working Men’s Association in 1836 and its ‘Address to the Working Classes of Europe’ posed the question: ‘Where, but from the ranks of labour, have the despots of Europe raised their fighting slaves to keep their brother slaves in awe’.[10] While in its ‘Address to the working classes in the United States’, though bemoaning that democratic America could tolerate legal oppression, reasoned that ‘Surely, it cannot be for the interests of the Working Classes that these prejudices should be fostered—this degrading traffic be maintained.’[11] John Collins, speaking at a Chartist rally in Manchester, said that the one stain on the Star-Spangled Banner was slavery which, like the slavery of children in England, did not proceed from her democratic institutions but from vestiges of aristocratic rule, words that were to be repeated in his and Lovett’s Chartism: a New Organisation of the People published in 1841..

Other abolitionists appeared at meetings of the LWMA and as a result were connected with the beginnings of Chartism. Daniel O’Connell’s relationship with Chartism fluctuated. He certainly played a significant role in drawing up the Charter though he soon fell out with Lovett and Hetherington over his attitude to trade unionism and especially the Glasgow spinners prosecuted in 1837. Even so, O’Connell defended his credentials as a friend of Chartism and continued to speak and write on the issue of slavery. He wrote in the Northern Liberator, ‘Yes, you are slaves so long as the law allows a ‘master class’ to have political privileges’[12].

The Charter was published in May 1838 and then presented to public meetings to gain mass support. Newspaper accounts show that anti-slavery supporters attended and sometimes played a leading role in these meetings. For example, in Glasgow[13], the first Chartist meeting on 21st May 1838 was chaired by James Turner of Thrushgrove, a long-time anti-slavery advocate. James Moir and John Ure, both member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society were also involved in planning meetings in the city. In the Midlands, August 1st was deliberately chosen as the date for a local demonstration to coincide with Emancipation Day in the West Indies so that speakers could capitalise on the opportunity to denounce slavery at home. The main speech was given by Henry Vincent[14], another Chartist leader who ascribed his political motivation to early anti-slavery convictions. One of the most important Chartist meetings was held in London in September in Palace Yard opposite Westminster Hall where Parliament was sitting[15]. Apart from Lovett, other abolitionists including T. Perronet Thompson and the Sheffield poet Ebenezer Elliott[16] spoke in favour of the Charter. The meeting thrust George Julian Harney[17], another Chartist who had long been an abolitionist centre stage in the movement. His growing involvement coincided with the evolving debate between the ‘moral’ and ‘physical’ force wings of Chartism. Most abolitionists preferred the ‘moral force’ approach because of their strong religious feelings and this put them on a collision course with Feargus O’Connor and his supporters.

The religious sentiments of abolitionists were most clearly expressed by the Reverend Patrick Brewster of Paisley who, as early as 1820 had used his pulpit to proclaim his support for the working class and their political aspirations. In his Christian and Socialist Sermons, he revealed the sufferings of the poor and the power of the rich[18]. He declared that having dared to seek justice for African slaves in defiance of vested interests, it was equally the duty of the people to seek justice in their own country. He believed it was Christian influence that had banned both slavery and the slave trade and he denounced the British ruling class and the laws that maintained unfair privileges. The suffering of slaves, including the white slaves of ‘Christian autocrats’, was greater in total, he declared, than all the suffering that came from social convulsions and insurrections against despotism. Though suspended from his pulpit for a year, Brewster held Edinburgh Chartists to a ‘moral force’ position while Glasgow Chartists joined the camp of the Scottish O’Connorite, Doctor John Taylor. The ensuing contest for leadership left the Scottish Chartist hopelessly divided[19].

The O’Connorite wing of Chartism was increasingly concerned by the divisive effects of ‘Christian’ attitudes towards labour’s problems. They also began to interrupt Anti-Corn Law meetings. From the Chartist point of view, this was not interruption of a good cause but a method of carrying the cause further than the narrow platform of one issue. By 1840, their disruptive tactic was extended to all meetings that did not give priority to the Charter. The World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in the summer of 1840 offered an excellent prospect because it led to local anti-slavery societies holding numerous meetings. There were attempts to take over anti-slavery meetings in Newcastle[20] and Norwich[21]: in Newcastle confrontation between Chartists and abolitionists was only avoided when the gas lights were put out but in Norwich the Chartists failed to substitute a resolution against slavery at home for one against black slavery in America. The largest disturbance took place in Glasgow in August 1840 when Chartists tried to take over the annual meeting of the Glasgow Emancipation Society[22]. These disruptions have been cited by historians as evidence of rivalry and antagonism with abolitionists though in fact Chartist disruption was a planned tactic used at public meetings of every variety. Certainly, this tactic alienated some abolitionists but the ensuing debates did result in other anti-slavery activists re-examining their views on and definition of oppression. Levels of hostility or sympathy towards Chartism co-existed within anti-slavery societies and families. For example, after the disruption of the Norwich meeting, the archdeacon acknowledged the necessity for anti-slavery societies to be aware of the needs at home as well as those abroad[23] while Anna Gurney sought to counteract Chartist influence by distributing bibles in the town.

Many abolitionists were torn between the competing appeals of Chartism and the Corn Law repeal. The middle class was especially concerned about direct action by Chartists and even Francis Place criticised Chartists for raising false hopes as they operated under the delusion that threats could move the government. Many abolitionists preferred to support the League or at least use it as an excuse for not backing Chartism. Repeal had the advantage of seeming less radical and more easily attained and was therefore a reasonable first step. Although many Chartists also favoured repeal, their conviction was that it would be only a half-way measure. Genuine improvement in working class conditions, they believed, would only come with political emancipation through manhood suffrage. It was from this position that Joseph Sturge sought to forge an alliance between abolitionists, Anti-Corn Law Leaguers and Chartists because he had no more fear of giving the vote to the people than he had of giving freedom to the slaves[24]. In reaching this conclusion, Sturge was influenced by what he saw as the need to defuse the growing tensions between middle and working classes in the wake of the Birmingham riots and the Newport rising in 1839 and as a result of his visit to the United States in 1841 on an anti-slavery mission. There he noted the relative comfort and prosperity of workers (other than slaves) and concluded that[25] ‘it is quite evident that the statesmen who would elevate the moral standard of our working population, must begin by removing the physical depression and destitution in which a large proportion of them, without any fault of their own, are compelled to drag out a weary and almost hopeless existence’. Sturge was afforded the opportunity of putting his ideas into practice with the publication of a series of letters on the necessity of bringing the classes into cooperation by Edward Miall[26], the editor of the London Nonconformist in the autumn of 1841[27].

Sturge’s chief rival in the competing anti-slavery societies, George Thompson, also decided in favour of coalition with the Chartists. Thompson was the leader of the British wing of the Garrisonians[28], while Sturge was affiliated to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Their agreement in principle meant that both abolitionist factions were now influenced by sympathy for and cooperation with Chartism. It could be argued that Chartism was the catalyst bringing the two factions into a new, though temporary spirit of co-operation. Both Sturge and Thompson were members of the Anti-Corn Law League and, as early as 1839, Thompson had suggested that the three groups (the League, the anti-slavery societies and Chartism) were pursuing issues that were all part of a single larger question. By the autumn of 1841, the consensus of opinion was that the Anti-Corn Law League could not succeed without the working class though it was not until 1842 that Thompson, rather apologetically, publicly joined the Chartists. Both Sturge and Thompson recognised the importance of public opinion in pushing government reform and now, together with Richard Cobden and Charles Villiers agreed that they must now show the government ‘that the masses are with us, or they will defy and defeat us’[29]. The British Garrisonian radicals and many of Sturge’s supporters in the early 1840s had concluded that, whatever their personal anxieties, class legislation was a fundamental source of evil in society.


[1] Poor Man’s Guardian, 6th July 1833.

[2] Quoted in R.G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, 2nd ed., 1894, reprinted Augustus M. Kelley, 1969, page 88.

[3] British Emancipator, 3rd January 1838 and The Reformer, 19th June 1835 both contain details of opposition among anti-slavery societies to compensation.

[4] Chartist attitudes were expressed in Northern Liberator, 17th April 1838 but also in issues between April and June 1838 and in the Northern Star, 10th March and 14th April 1838 and 8th November 1839.

[5] Northern Star, 26th May 1838.

[6] Northern Liberator, 8th November 1838.

[7] Northern Star, 5th May 1838.

[8] Sturge became directly involved with Chartism in Birmingham in 1839. He strongly objected to the presence of Metropolitan police used in July to deal with the meetings in the Bull Ring and whose presence arguably led to rioting. Sturge’s public stand in support of Chartist rights made him the object of Home Office surveillance for the next four years.

[9] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett…, 1876, page 107. He had been involved in the anti-slavery movement from the mid-1820s.

[10] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett…, 1876, pages 129-134, reference to page 132.

[11] William Lovett The Life and Struggles of William Lovett…, 1876, pages150-158, reference to page 152.

[12] Northern Liberator, 28th October 1837.

[13] Alex Wilson ‘Chartism in Glasgow’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 251-253.

[14] William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch with a Preface by Mrs Vincent, James Clark, 1879, pages 66-69 details Vincent’s experience as a youth in Hull where he heard a lecture by George Thompson that filled him with a ‘holy zeal’ to fight slavery and the slave trade and aroused his sense of personal responsibility for reform.

[15] On 16th October 1834, most of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire. Only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel and the cloisters survived the conflagration. A Royal Commission was appointed to study the rebuilding of the Palace. The Commission decided that the Palace should be rebuilt on the same site and in 1836, after studying 97 rival proposals, it chose Charles Barry’s plan for a Gothic style palace. The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords’ Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons’ Chamber in 1852 (at which point Barry received a knighthood). Although most of the work had been carried out by 1860, construction was not finished until a decade afterwards.

[16] Sheffield Iris, 8th January 1839. Elliott later broke with the Chartists believing that repeal of the Corn Laws should have priority.

[17] On Harney’s anti-slavery credentials see A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney, Heinemann, 1958, pages 3 and 8.

[18] Brewster’s references to slavery in his Christian and Socialist Sermons, 1844 are especially on pages 8-10, 20-21, 32-33, 48, 54 and 58.

[19] Bronterre O’Brien in The Operative, 14th December 1838 blamed Brewster for the split and O’Connor in the Northern Star, 12th January 1839 called him a ‘political priest’ whose actions had played into the hands of O’Connell and the ‘vile Whigs’.

[20] Northern Liberator, 15th August 1840. The paper described the Anti-Slavery Convention as a ‘grand meeting of humbug’ representing the cant and insincerity of the ‘slave squad’.

[21] Northern Star, 26th November 1840.

[22] Glasgow Argus, 12th, 13th August 1840.The paper described the meeting degenerating into a ‘constant howl’.

[23] Northern Star, 26th November 1840.

[24] Birmingham Journal, 1st February 1840.

[25] Joseph Sturge A Visit to the United States in 1841, London, 1842, pages 102-3 and 147.

[26] On Edward Miall, see David M. Thomson ‘The Liberation Society 1844-1868’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 210-238.

[27] The articles appeared in the Nonconformist 13th October-1st December 1841 and were collected together by Miall the following year in the pamphlet Reconciliation between the Middle and Labouring Classes, Birmingham, 1842 with an introduction by Sturge.

[28] Widespread rejection of the anti-slavery programme in the United States forced abolitionists to reconsider their moral persuasion strategy. Many followed the lead of the Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and abandoned the churches, believing them to be hopelessly corrupted by slavery. Garrisonians also counselled Northerners to refuse to vote as a way of expressing disapproval for the ‘pro-slavery’ Constitution. The Garrisonians also championed universal reform, including temperance, pacifism, and extension of women's rights. Under Garrisonian control, the American Anti-Slavery Society committed itself to non-resistant political protest and advocated the dissolution of the union with slaveholding states.

[29] John Rylands Library, Manchester: George Thompson Papers, Notebook, 7th October 1841.

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