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Trades Combinations page 2


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Parliament had been summoned to meet on the 16th of February, and on that day the session was opened by the Queen in person. She lamented the continuance of the civil war in Spain, but on another subject she had a very gratifying announcement to make. "It is," said Her Majesty, " with the greatest satisfaction that I am enabled to inform you that throughout the whole of my West Indian possessions the period fixed by law for the final and complete emancipation of the negroes has been anticipated by acts of the Colonial Legislatures, and that the transition from the temporary system of apprenticeship to entire freedom has taken place without any disturbance of public order and tranquillity. Any measures which may be necessary in order to give full effect to this great and beneficial change, will, I have no doubt, receive your careful attention."

The concluding paragraph of the speech referred to the disturbances and combinations among the working classes. "I have observed with pain," she said, "the persevering efforts which have been made in some parts of the country to excite my subjects to disobedience and resistance to the law, and to recommend dangerous and illegal practices. For the counteraction of all such designs, I depend upon the efficacy of the law, which it will be my duty to enforce, upon the good sense and right disposition of my people, upon their attachment to the principles of justice, and their abhorrence of violence and disorder."

In the debate on the address in the Lords, the Duke of Wellington directed particular attention to this subject. " I could wish Her Majesty's Ministers, and the noblemen who are in the habit of supporting them, to attend most particularly to this subject. It is, indeed, but too true that such efforts have been continually made to excite Her Majesty's subjects to resistance to the laws. But, in connection with this fact, let me remind you of a discussion which took place in Parliament on a former occasion, when noble lords, and one high in office, came down and insisted with the utmost warmth upon the indispensable necessity of not interfering with what they described as the rights of the people, demanding that no restriction whatever should be thrown on their right to assemble in large bodies; which dangerous doctrine was not even limited by the rule laid down by the law of the land, that such assemblies must not be in numbers sufficient to create alarm in the community. Remember, too, that at the very moment when the noble lord at the head of the Home Department was proclaiming a doctrine of that kind, in its fullest extent, at a meeting at Liverpool, large crowds of men were alarming the country by torchlight meetings."

In the course of the debate in the Commons, Sir Robert Peel adverted to the paragraph referring to illegal meetings. Having read several extracts from the speeches of Mr. Stephens, Dr. Wade, and Mr. Feargus O'Connor delivered at Chartist meetings, he quoted, for the purpose of reprehending, a speech delivered by Lord John Russell at Liverpool in the previous month of October, when, alluding to the Chartist meeting, the noble lord said, "There are some perhaps who would put down such meetings, but such was not his opinion, nor that of the Government with which he acted. He thought the people had a right to free discussion which elicited truth. They had a right to meet. If they had no grievances, common sense would speedily come to the rescue, and put an end to these meetings." These sentiments, remarked Sir Robert Peel, might be just, and even truisms; yet the unseasonable expression of truth in times of public excitement was often dangerous. The Reform Bill, he said, had failed to give permanent satisfaction as he had throughout predicted would be the case, and he well knew that a concession of further reform, in the expectation of producing satisfaction or finality, would be only aggravating the disappointment, and that in a few years they would be encountered by further demands.

It was during the year 1838 that the Chartists became an organised body. The working classes had strenuously supported the middle classes in obtaining their political rights during the agitation for the Reform Bill, and they expected, to receive help in their turn to obtain political franchises for themselves, but they found Parliament indifferent or hostile to any further changes in the representation, while the middle class, satisfied with their own acquisitions, were not inclined to exert themselves much for the extension of political rights among the masses. The discontent and disappointment of the latter were aggravated by a succession of bad harvests, setting in about 1835. The hardships of their condition, with scanty employment and dear provisions, the people ascribed to their want of direct influence upon the Government. This gave rise to a vigorous agitation for the extension of the franchise, which was carried on for ten years. In 1838 a committee of six members of Parliament and six working men prepared a bill embodying their demands. This was called the "People's Charter." Its points were six in number: - First, the extension of the right of voting to every male native of the United Kingdom, and every naturalised foreigner resident in the kingdom for more than two years, who should be twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and unconvinced of crime; second, equal electoral districts; third, vote by ballot; fourth, annual Parliaments; fifth, no property qualification for members; sixth, payment of members of Parliament for their services.

This programme was received with great enthusiasm, being adopted by acclamation at monster meetings, which in some places numbered hundreds of thousands. "Fiery orators," says a popular writer, "fanned the popular excitement, and under the guidance of the extreme party among their leaders, physical force was soon spoken of as the only means of obtaining justice. The more moderate and thoughtful of the Chartists were overruled by the fanatical and turbulent spirits; and the people, already roused by sufferings, were easily wrought into frenzy by those who assumed the direction of their movements."

The style of the oratory which prevailed at those monster meetings may be inferred from an extract from a speech by the Rev. Mr. Stephens, a Nonconformist minister, who expounded the charter in the following strain: - "The principle of the people's charter," he said, "was the right of every man that breathed God's free air, or trod God's free earth, to have his home and his hearth, and to have happiness to himself, his wife, and his children, as securely guaranteed to him as they are to every man whom the Almighty had created. The question of universal suffrage was, after all, a knife and fork ' question. If any man asked him what he meant by universal suf- rage, he would tell him he meant to say that every working man in the land had a right to have a good coat and hat, a good roof over his head, a good dinner upon his table, no more work than would keep him in health, and as much wages as would keep him in plenty, and the enjoyment of those pleasures of life which a reasonable man could desire. I am speaking," he continued, " to hundreds of thousands, three out of four of whom have, in all likelihood, left their arms at home to-day. And why have you left them at home? Because you were afraid to bring them? (Cries of ' No I no!') Why, then, have you left them behind? Why, because the borough reeve and constables of Manchester have declared that they repose the fullest confidence in the peaceable and loyal character of the people. If they had not made that declaration, I should have come myself armed to this meeting. I should have brought 10,000 armed men with me; I should have moved, had there been a necessity for it, an adjournment of this meeting for a month; and I should have exhorted every man in the country capable of bearing arms to flock to his standard, and under it to fight the battles of the constitution."

There is no mistaking the socialistic character of these sentiments. The idea of Mr. Stephens could not be realised without the destruction of the rights of individual property - without having goods in common; and this, as all experiments have proved, would lead to national bankruptcy and universal poverty. The agitation became so alarming, however, that Mr. Stephens was indicted, and held to bail on a charge of sedition. But this interference with liberty of speech served only to inflame the excitement, and to render the language of the orators more violent. In June, 1839, Mr. Attwood presented the Chartist petition to the House of Commons, bearing 1,200,000 signatures, and on the 15th of July he moved that it should be referred to a select committee, but the motion was rejected by a majority of 289 to 281. This gave a fresh impulse to the agitation. The most inflammatory speakers besides Mr. Stephens were Mr. Oastler and Mr. Feargus O'Connor. The use of arms began to be freely spoken of as a legitimate means of obtaining their rights. Pikes and guns were procured in great quantities; drilling was practised, and armed bands marched in nocturnal processions, to the terror of the peaceable inhabitants. At length, Lord John Russell, as Home Secretary, reluctant as he was to interfere with the free action of the people, issued a proclamation to the lieutenants of the disturbed counties, authorising them to accept the armed assistance of persons who might place themselves at their disposal for the preservation of the public peace. As a means of showing their numerical strength, the Chartists adopted the plan of going round from house to house with two books, demanding subscriptions for the support of the Charter, entering the names of subscribers in one book, and of non-subscribers in the other. Each subscriber received a ticket, which was to be his protection in case of insurrection, while the non-subscribers were given to understand that their names would be remembered. Another striking mode of demonstrating their power and producing an impression, though not the most agreeable one, was to go in procession to the churches on Sunday some time before Divine service began, and to take entire possession of the body of the edifice. They conducted themselves quietly, however, although some were guilty of the impropriety of wearing their hats and smoking pipes.

Early in the year the Chartist associations in different parts of the kingdom proceeded to the election of deputies, in order to form a national convention, which was to sit in different places, and to have the supreme direction of the movement. All the earlier sessions of this body were held in London, where it was occupied in superintending the signing of the national petition, which was presented by Mr. Attwood on the 14th of June, as already stated. A peculiarity in this popular movement was that it was directed against the middle classes, and was impelled by hostility to capitalists. It was for this reason, it is said, that the Chartists set their faces in every possible way against the numerous meetings for the abolition of the Corn Laws, which took place contemporaneously with their own assemblages at the commencement of the current year. They believed that any diminution of the duty on corn would lower wages, and turn to the profit of the employer alone. On the 25th of May there was a grand moral demonstration of the working classes of South Lancashire, held in favour of the people's charter, upon Kersal Moor, four miles from Manchester. The magistrates, apprehending a breach of the peace, issued a notice, in which they earnestly recommended all well-disposed persons to abstain from attending the meeting, warning them of the dangerous tendency of the contemplated proceedings. Several regiments of soldiers were in readiness to act, but fortunately their services were not required, as the meeting passed off very quietly. The public journals at the time stated that the Chartists present on this occasion did not exceed 30,000, and that they seemed to be confined almost wholly to the lowest of the operative classes; but they admit that an equal number were drawn by curiosity to witness the proceedings, or to join in the sports on the moor. The Chartists arrived in processions along the different roads from Manchester, Hyde, Ashton, Bury, Rochdale, Middleton, Bolton, and other places. They were preceded by bands of music and banners, bearing inscriptions and descriptive mottoes, such as the following - "Universal suffrage; " " Annual parliaments; " " Vote by ballot; " "Abolition of white slavery; " " We have set our lives upon a cast, and will stand the hazard of the die; " " Universal suffrage, or death;" "United we stand, divided we fall; " " We know our rights, and we will have them; " "The rights of man;" "Tyrants tremble, for the people are awake; " " Reason no longer with tyrants - man has but once to die; " " No corn laws," &c. Dr. Fletcher, of Bury, was called to the chair, and proceeded to state the purposes for which the meeting was convened. They were expressed in the following propositions, which he read to the meeting: -

"Whether they will be prepared, at the request of the convention, to withdraw all sums of money they may, individually or collectively, have placed in savings banks, or in the hands of any persons hostile to their just rights? Whether, at the same request, they will be prepared immediately to convert all their paper money into gold and silver? Whether, if the convention shall determine that a sacred month will be necessary to prepare the millions to secure the charter of their political salvation, they will firmly resolve to abstain from their labours during that period, as well as from the use of all intoxicating drinks? Whether, according to their old constitutional right - a right which modern legislators would fain annihilate - they have provided themselves with arms of freedom to defend the laws and constitutional privileges that their ancestors bequeathed to them? Whether they will provide themselves with Chartist candidates, so as to be prepared to propose them for their representatives at the next general election; and if returned by show of hands, such candidates do consider themselves veritable representatives of the people, to meet in London at a time hereafter to be determined on? Whether they will resolve to deal exclusively with Chartists; and in all cases of persecution rally round and protect all those who may suffer for their righteous cause? "

In submitting these propositions, the chairman observed that the people had 13,000,000 in the savings banks, and if they would only withdraw at the present crisis 1,000,000 it would be sufficient to achieve their liberties; and as to the proposition to take up arms, Lord John Russell had proved himself a statesman on that point, by admitting the right. Mr. Feargus O'Connor declared that he was there that day because the magistrates had said that this was an illegal meeting; he was there because the proclamation of the Queen had said it was an unconstitutional meeting. " A proclamation," he said, " should only be resorted to at the last extremity, when there was no opportunity of strengthening the law; and why, on such anticipation, did Parliament adjourn at this period over an unusual length of time? They could not apprehend any danger, or else they were a pack of poltroon cowards, that had left their post, and thrown the shame upon our young Queen. Never did the Queen look so lovely in his eyes as upon the present occasion, because, when surrounded by two sets of vagabond factions, and the Tories were making their arrangements for substituting a shooting Government for a cowardly Government, she dismissed them. He had good authority for asserting that all the Hanoverian clubs of London were at work to know how they could dispose of our young Queen, and to substitute a bloody Cumberland in her place. But, if that fellow were upon the throne, he would himself put on a red coat at once, and he should have no hesitation in advising the people to revolt - it would be their duty - against the factions, and in favour of our constitutional monarchy."

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