Thursday, 31 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Chartism and Slavery 'distinction without difference' 3

‘Moral radicalism’

Contemporary reformers in and around Birmingham were convinced that the Birmingham Political Union had led the popular movement that brought about parliamentary reform in 1832. For Thomas Attwood and his supporters what made this possible was the union of middle and working classes in the town. This union of all classes was, the BPU argued, based on the unity of interest of all the ‘productive classes’, a shorthand term for both manufacturers and workers. Whether valid or not, the myth of class collaboration as a means of achieving reform was a powerful one in Birmingham and it is not surprising that later attempts to draw together middle class radical and the more respectable elements of Chartism drew its inspiration from the BPU[1].

The precise relationship between political, ideological and social factors was, however, more complex than this suggests. The BPU may have proclaimed the success of the alliance of the working and middle classes, but there was considerable dissatisfaction among working people with the 1832 settlement. This contributed to the re-emergence of the BPU between 1837 and 1839 and Attwood’s somewhat pragmatic conversion to the programme of universal suffrage he had previously opposed. In many respects, Attwood was responding to changes in the local economy towards the increasing factory production of various trades, downward pressure on wages and fear of unemployment and under-employment[2]. This had led to developing economic conflict with employers and resentment at the exclusion of working class representatives from a share in the leadership of the BPU. The notion of a ‘unity of interest’ looked increasingly precarious by the middle years of the 1830s and collapsed completely in 1838-39 with the incorporation of Birmingham in late 1838 and the decision by BPU leaders to call in detachments of the metropolitan police in mid-1839 to control rioting crowds in the Bull Ring.

One of the strengths of middle class radicalism in Birmingham up to the late 1830s was that although it was bankers, manufacturers and businessmen who took the lead, they were able to draw on the support of those exponents of ‘moral radicalism’ among the town’s middle class. The attitude of ‘moral radicals’ was explicitly shaped by non-Anglican religious loyalties and their conviction of the possibilities of class harmony through class collaboration. This perspective was not grounded in any socio-economic analysis and they had no evident attraction to Attwood’s currency theories, but their presence in the BPU does seem to have made a difference. Attwood and his supporters were abolitionists and maintained this position after 1833 and they found common ground with the religious reformers over factory regulation and opposition to the financial claims of the Established Church.

The ‘moral radicals’ shared a number of the specific objectives of the Attwood group and the more general aspiration to class collaboration. However, by 1835, their views on class collaboration began to diverge from the emphasis of the BPU. A more distinctive moral radicalism was given voice in a new weekly paper, the Reformer and in its successor, the Philanthropist. In addition to their opposition to West Indian apprenticeship, support for freer trade, the ballot and further franchise reform, the moral radicals directed their views at the aspiration to respectability among the working class by advocating temperance and what was later called ‘rational leisure’. There was also a strong element of patriotism in their thinking. The duty of Christian reformers was to end corruption and they believed in ‘reform of every abuse from the throne to the poor house’[3]. This led to increasing tension with the BPU and the Philanthropist concluded before the end of 1837 that the BPU not longer commanded the support it had in 1832 and lacked the influence to turn the Whig government out and was simply hoping for something better from the Tories[4]. With the collapse of the Attwood-working class alliance by 1839, the moral radicals were best placed to establish a new union of the classes. Sturge certainly saw himself as leading any such alliance. The result was the eventual creation of the Complete Suffrage Union in early 1842.

The Complete Suffrage Union: the high point of co-operation

Was Sturge being politically naïve in believing that a Parliament elected by the people could be trusted to legislate for the people? Francis Place certainly had worries on this score. Sturge had, however, taken the moral high-ground of the right to the vote just as he had accepted the right of slaves to freedom irrespective of how that right might be exercised. This was apparent in the ‘Declaration’ he drew up to be circulated for signature. It articulated the principle that taxation without representation was tyranny and that the right to a ‘full, free and fair’ franchise was based on both constitutional and Christian principles[5]. By 1842, a provisional committee based in Birmingham had begun preparations for a conference in April.

The Birmingham conference in April 1842 launched the Complete Suffrage Union[6] amid high hopes for a successful coalition. It recognised the natural right to the suffrage and demanded the vote for every male aged twenty-one regardless of property qualifications, called for a secret ballot, annual parliaments and the payment of MPs. This was all condensed into a resolution for Sharman Crawford to introduce in the House of Commons. Lord Brougham agreed to launch it to the House of Lords and to present the memorial to the Queen. This showed that there was awareness among middle class radicals of the need for conciliation on their part. They announced that it was wrong to assume that a memorial embodying principles agreed on the preliminary discussions was intended to defeat the Charter. Nonetheless, the imprint of the outlook of moral radicalism and anti-slavery was clear in the minutes and records of the conference. The language of ‘political slavery’ was used widely and a proposed pattern of operation through correspondents, lecturers and missionaries, tracts and pamphlets as well as propaganda in religious periodicals such as the Nonconformist and the Eclectic Review was reminiscent of anti-slavery campaigns.

Many abolitionists rallied to support Sturge. Nonconformist clergymen were among the most active as many were already sympathetic to the ‘Chartist churches’ established among the working people. In this groups were: Edward Miall, J.H. Hinton of London[7], J.P. Mursell of Leicester[8], J.W. Massie of Manchester[9], Doctor John Ritchie of Edinburgh[10], Thomas Swam of Birmingham[11] and Henry Solly of Yeovil[12]. The most noted organiser of Chartist churches, Arthur O’Neill, worked with Sturge in Birmingham. Influential abolitionist ministers of the established church included Patrick Brewster and Thomas Spencer of Bath[13]. Spencer and Solly had the most direct contact with the working class. Scottish abolitionist supporters of Sturge included James Moir, John Ure, James Turner and Andrew Paton from the Glasgow area, Baillie Turner and John Dunlop of Edinburgh. Support also came from the League especially from Archibald Prentice, P.A. Taylor and Dr John Bowring as well as from Lord Brougham and Daniel O’Connell, prominent anti-slavery politicians. The moral radicals were also encouraged by the emergence of ‘new move’ Chartism; this was just the kind of respectable radicalism that was most likely to appeal to Sturge and his religious friends. Leading Chartists, including William Lovett, Henry Vincent (as the leading exponent of teetotal Chartism his attendance was immediately encouraging to temperance reformers among the moral radicals), John Collins and Bronterre O’Brien[14] who were already committed to the anti-slavery cause also supported Sturge.

There were, however, notable absentees. Colonel T.P. Thompson was sceptical of Sturge’s approach believing that Chartism would drag the CSU down. Edward Baines did not accept that it was possible to unite such a disparate collection of reformers effectively. In addition, Baines believed that, after 1832, the middle class electorate had to be preserved from being overwhelmed by the uneducated masses and for many years was opposed to the complete suffrage proposals or even household suffrage. Joseph John Gurney, probably the leading figure of the evangelical Quakers, was hostile to Chartist politics. This was largely the consequence of his views on American democracy that he experienced first-hand in the late 1830s. He believed that democracy was no good unless it was also a theocracy and he especially disliked the habit of oppressive popular violence in the democratic system.

What made the Complete Suffrage Union different from earlier attempts at class reconciliation was its acceptance of universal suffrage as necessary to forge a cross-class alliance. This posed a real problem for O’Connor and throughout 1842, while expressing personal respect for Sturge he consistently resisted any Chartist alliance with the CSU. The Northern Star opposed the formation of the CSU in April 1842 on the grounds that two national associations committed to universal suffrage could not co-exist. It was never likely that the O’Connorite wing of Chartism would embrace the moral radicalism that informed the middle class leadership of the CSU. O’Connor’s attitude remained ambivalent. The CSU was too closely associated with free trade and the Anti-Corn Law League to be acceptable. O’Connor initially conducted a fierce campaign against the CSU, which was obliged to adopt the Charter in all but name, but recognised the tactical advantage of an accommodation with middle class radicals and came out in favour of class collaboration in July 1842. This strategy of infiltration led to widespread Chartist support for Sturge when he stood for the open and radical constituency of Nottingham at a by-election in the summer. Although the contest was close, Sturge lost. O’Connor did not seek an alliance with the CSU but rather the incorporation of a section of the middle class into the Chartist movement. He told a Chartist meeting at St Pancras in September 1842[15] “We will stand firm and united – We will listen to no coalition, no half measures. Mahomet must come to the mountain…We are the mountain – we are the people.”

The points of the Charter were accepted but they were tied to a repudiation of physical force and an exclusive reliance on ‘a moral agency’. Although the Chartist members of the conference did not dissent from this, signs of future difficulties did emerge. Lovett and his allies would not budge on the Charter itself. No alternative definition of complete suffrage was acceptable. He argued that acceptance of the principles of the Charter without its name made the unity of classes less likely since the Charter had become a symbolic statement for working people. Miall and Spencer voiced the unease of some of the middle class radicals that the Chartists were trying to dictate the terms of the alliance and, as a result, the decision on the status of the Charter was postponed until the autumn.

There was nothing inevitable about the failure of collaboration, at least between the kinds of working class radicals in Birmingham and those present at the April conference. By late April 1842, there were fifty local associations and the CSU presented a rival parliamentary petition to that of the National Charter Association: it too was heavily defeated. The April conference had adjourned with the intention of meeting again in the autumn. However, the summer of 1842 saw widespread unemployment followed by demonstrations and arrests and it was this, more than anything else that destroyed the substantial common ground between middle and working class radicals. Consequently, the meeting was postponed until December. By the autumn, under pressure from Chartist hard-liners and by his failure to attract substantial middle class converts, O’Connor reversed his position and again attacked the CSU as ‘a League job’. A conference to try to determine a common programme was called to take place in the saloon of the Mechanics Institution, New Hall Street, Birmingham from 27th to 30th December 1842. Weeks of jockeying for position followed, with each faction trying to send the most delegates. O’Connor and other representatives of the NCA stood in the election to nominate delegates. This proved successful and O’Connor was elected as one of the six delegates for Sturge’s home town of Birmingham. The result was a conference packed with Chartist delegates despite prior agreement.

The irony was that everyone who attended the December conference agreed on goals but it foundered on naming the document through which those aims should be publicised. The middle class radicals insisted on the adoption of a 96-clause ‘New Bill of Rights’ for universal suffrage instead of the emotive ‘Charter’. This was an attempt to disassociate middle class radicalism from the anarchic confusion associated with O’Connor and his supporters. Things did not start well. Thomas Beggs, a Nottingham delegate, presented a series of resolutions, supporting the six points of the Charter, asking that the conference support “such means only for obtaining the legislative recognition of them as are of a strictly just, peaceful, legal and constitutional character” and take as the basis for discussion a Bill of Rights prepared by the council of the Complete Suffrage Union. The two measures were largely identical as both parties to the conference admitted, but there was an absolute deadlock over the term ‘Chartist’. Lovett, as leader of the Chartist faction at the conference, proposed in the interests of harmony that both bills be withdrawn or that both be considered clause by clause. But all attempts at conciliation failed, Lovett was not prepared to accept this and tactically (and temporarily) joined with O’Connor in substituting ‘Charter’ for ‘Bill’ and this was carried by the decisive majority of 193 to 94. When it became clear that the Charter had the support of the majority of delegates, Joseph Sturge resigned from the chair and withdrew from the conference with many of his supporters. Further splits followed as the conference went on, and by its end, the 300 to 400 delegates present at its opening had fallen to just 37. Neither side would accept the other’s conditions for joint action. Class collaboration was ended, the CSU was allowed to wither and O’Connor’s grip of the movement was tightened. The Birmingham Journal provided an apt summary of events: it was the old story of marriage on Monday, quarrels on Tuesday and divorce on Wednesday. The two partners had agreed on their affections but could not agree on the name of their child and so strangled it[16].

A falling-off of support?

The experiment with the Complete Suffrage Union was the high point of abolitionist co-operation with Chartism from the viewpoint both of the level of support and the degree of public commitment. Though there was a falling-off of support was caused by a sense of disillusion among some abolitionists and anti-slavery organisations, a significant number of individual abolitionists carried on the agitation for suffrage reform. Sturge continued to tour the country speaking for reform and his newspaper, The Pilot, advocated the franchise as basic to other reforms and necessary even to obtain the repeal of the Corn Law. Abolitionist MPs sympathetic to Complete Suffrage or Chartism in the 1840s included John Bowring, C.P. Villiers, Edward Miall, William Johnson Fox[17], George Thompson and Sharman Crawford. Other abolitionists continued to work through local politics, lectures and publications. Of particular importance were James Silk Buckingham, W.H. Ashurst[18], Albert Albright and his nephew Charles Gilpin, William and Mary Howitt[19], W.J. Linton, F.R. Lees[20], W.E. Forster, Thomas Spencer, Henry Solly, Samuel Roberts of Wales[21], James Haughton of Dublin[22] and several Scots including Patrick Brewster, John Ritchie, James Moir and Alexander Duncannon[23]. The Complete Suffrage Union survived in Scotland after it had died out in other areas,

The increasing sensitivity of British abolitionists to the justice of Chartist demands is reflected in the degree to which visiting Americans were drawn into discussions on the similarities between slavery and working class exploitation and thus into arguments about where priorities should lie. James and Lucretia Mott, John A. Collins, Charles Redmond and William Lloyd Garrison were all influenced by what they saw of working class conditions in Britain. Collins, for example was persuaded that the anti-slavery movement had helped open eyes to other oppressive systems and saw British society was resting on a dangerous structure just as American society rested dangerously on slavery. The late 1840s and 1850s brought an increased flood of American abolitionists to Britain, among them many blacks who were often appalled by the conditions of the British poor. Frederick Douglass, most prominent of all black abolitionists, specifically called himself a Chartist and lectured to large crowds that included working class people. In 1846, Douglass, Garrison and Henry C. Wright, all committed to Chartist principle, worked closely with British abolitionists. They preached in Chartist churches and Complete Suffrage gatherings.

At the same time, several Chartist leaders, notably Lovett and Vincent, strengthened their links with organised anti-slavery groups. Both took part in the formation of George Thompson’s Anti-Slavery League in 1846 and were active in that group’s efforts to pressure the Evangelical Alliance to refuse fellowship to visiting pro-slavery American clergymen. This interest in black slavery continued within the Chartist movement into the 1850s and this is a clear indication of the degree to which the two causes influenced each other. The success of the abolitionists in winning their fight for emancipation and against the apprenticeship system persuaded some Chartists to use their strategy to gain support. More importantly, the Chartists adapted the arguments against slavery for use in their own cause capitalising on abolitionist success in heightening the British public’s awareness of oppression. By equating working class exploitation with slavery, the Chartists forced many abolitionists to extend their vision.


It is easy to exaggerate the significance of Chartist links with the abolitionists. The range of responses to Chartism exhibited by anti-slavery reformers underlines the conclusion that there was no single set of abolitionist answers to working class grievances. Mass support for abolitionism in the 1830s, though it died away after 1838, co-existed with sympathy, ambivalence and much hostility among abolitionists towards claims for greater autonomy and greater influence by the leaders of Chartism. Above all, efforts by abolitionists to work with Chartists achieved very little. However, the abolitionists in general and Sturge’s supporters in particular anticipated the development of the more harmonious society that developed in urban and industrial centres in the late 1840s and 1850s. They also accepted that, if collaboration was to work, it required acknowledgement by the middle class of an equality of esteem as well as rights of working people and meant acknowledging that collaboration did not simply mean middle class leadership. This does not alter the reality of co-operation, which worked best where there was some convergence in attitudes and values between middle and working class radicals. When Oastler said that the causes of anti-slavery and Chartism were ‘one and the same’, he recognised the mutual influence that they had over each other. This was the achievement of class collaboration.

[1] Carlos Flick The Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain 1830-1839, Folkestone, 1978 and Clive Behagg ‘An Alliance with the Middle Class: the Birmingham Political Union and Early Chartism’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture 1830-60, Macmillan, 1982, pages 60-61, 67.

[2] Clive Behagg Politics & Production in the Early Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 1990, especially pages 158-222 is an invaluable revisionist study that challenges the standard interpretation of the social relations of production in the workshop sector especially in Birmingham.

[3] Philanthropist, 4th February 1836.

[4] Philanthropist, 21st December 1837.

[5] The Northern Star, 19th May 1842 facetiously objected to Sturge’s principle that all who were not a burden on the state should have the vote. This, said the editor, would exclude all the clergy, the upper class and most of the middle class.

[6] On the Complete Suffrage Union, James Epstein The Lion of Freedom, Croom Helm, 1982, pages 286-302 is the best examination of Chartist responses. Alexander Wilson ‘The Suffrage Movement’ in P. Hollis (ed.) Pressure from Without in Early Victorian England, London, 1974, pages 80-104 considers the 1840s and the 1850s with a useful section on the CSU. Alex Tyrrell Joseph Sturge and the Moral Radical Party in Early Victorian Britain, London, 1987 is the standard biography

[7] Hinton worked with Sturge in organising the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and was editor of the British Emancipator.

[8] Mursell was pastor of the Bond Street Independent Chapel in Leicester and was active in the Reform agitation and the Anti-Corn Law League.

[9] Massie was an Anti-Corn Law activist and helped organise the Anti-Slavery League.

[10] James Ritchie of the Secessionist church in Edinburgh had taken part in the Scottish abolition movement since the organisation of the Glasgow and Edinburgh societies in 1833.

[11] Thomas Swan was a Baptist minister. He was an active member of the Birmingham Anti-Slavery Society and a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1843.

[12] On Solly, see his autobiography These Eighty Years, Or The Story of an Unfortunate Life, 1893. He was a relative newcomer to the anti-slavery cause largely because of the publicity surrounding the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. He went to Yeovil on his first Unitarian pastorate and was challenged by John Bainbridge, the local Chartist leader to explain how he could preach Sunday after Sunday about Christ and yet did nothing to relieve the crushing oppression of the poor and was persuaded by the Chartist arguments. He spoke for the Charter at the ministers’ conference in 1841 and was an enthusiastic support of Sturge and the CSU but was one of the few abolitionists who voted with Lovett to retain the name of the Charter against Sturge who wanted to discard it.

[13] Spencer, like Brewster was outspoken against the established church’s failure to meet the needs of working people and insisted that it was a Christian’s duty to be political in the cause of the oppressed. He spoke in favour of the Ten Hours’ Bill, the unjust tax system, the standing army and other unjust state institutions.

[14] O’Brien had attacked the limited sympathies of abolitionists in the 1830s but seemed to have revised his attitude by 1842 to the worth of working with those of the middle class who were more acceptable because they were not Anglican but nonconformist in religion.

[15] Northern Star, 17th September 1842.

[16] Birmingham Journal, 31st December 1842. Bronterre O’Brien put the primary blame for failure to agree on Thomas Spencer, J. Ritchie, Patrick Brewster and Lawrence Heyworth in British Statesman, 31st December 1842.

[17] Fox was interested in extending educational opportunities, women’s rights and Chartism though he disliked O’Connor’s approach. After the Chartist failure of 1848, he wrote Counsels to the Working Class, in which he argued for the need for co-operation between middle and working classes.

[18] William Ashurst was a radical London solicitor who championed the cause of the poor, the Charter and equal rights for women.

[19] The Howitts took over The People’s Journal and continued it as People’s and Howitt’s Journal. They were active in the Co-operative League and on behalf of Mechanics’ Institutes.

[20] F.R. Lees, who joined the Chartists, published The Truthmaker in which he frequently reprinted anti-slavery as well as Chartist materials.

[21] Samuel Roberts of Llanbrynmair supported numerous reforms including anti-slavery, manhood suffrage and education, abolition of the death penalty and disestablishment of the church. In 1843, he founded a monthly magazine Y Cronicl.

[22] James Haughton was one of the main leaders of the Irish anti-slavery movement. He favoured the suffrage for men and women as long as they were literate and not on parish relief.

[23] Alexander Duncannon was pastor of a Congregational church in Falkirk and was active in the Scottish abolitionist movement. He wanted a fusion of all reform groups including Chartism, anti-slavery, temperance and anti-capital punishment.

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