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Effects of the French Revolution - England


Effects of the French Revolution in Great Britain and Ireland - The Chartist Agitation - The National Convention - Disturbances at Glasgow - The Monster Petition - Intended English Revolution - Proposed Monster Meeting on Kennington Common - Notice by the Police Commissioners - Alarm of the Metropolis - The 10th of April - Special Constables - Means of Defence taken by the Duke of Wellington - Fortifications of the Public Buildings, &c. - Procession of the National Convention with the Monster Petition - The Meeting at the Common - Feargus O'Connor and the Police Commissioners - Collapse of the Demonstration - Dispersion of the Meeting - The Crowds stopped on the Bridges - Triumph of Order - The Chartist Petition presented - Exposure of Enormous Frauds connected with it - Renewed Agitation in London - Alarming Demonstrations - Arrest of the Chartist Leaders - Prosecution and Conviction of Cuffey and his Associates - Spies and Informers - The New Parliament - Crime in Ireland - Increased Powers granted to the Executive - Mr. Horsman on Irish Coercion - The Murder of Major Mahon - Altar Denunciations - Illness and Death of Daniel O'Connell - Sketch of his Life.
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All Europe was astonished by the news of the French Revolution. The successful insurrection of the working classes in Paris - the flight of the King - the abolition of monarchy - the establishment of a Republic, all the work of two or three days, were events so startling that the occupants of thrones might well stand aghast at their recital, and tremble for their own possessions.- It would not have been surprising if the revolutionary spirit emanating from Paris had, to a large extent, invaded Great Britain and Ireland. The country had just passed through a fearful crisis; great sacrifices had been made by all classes to save the people from starvation; many families had been utterly ruined by gigantic failures, and there was still very general privation prevailing in all parts of the United Kingdom. Under such circumstances, the masses are peculiarly liable to be excited against the Government by ignorant or unprincipled agitators, who could easily persuade them that their sufferings arose from misgovernment, and that matters could never go right till the people established their own sovereignty - till they abolished monarchy and aristocracy, and proclaimed a republic. The Chartist agitation, though not formally proposing any such issue of the movement, had, nevertheless, familiarised the minds of the working classes with the idea of such a revolution. The points of their charter comprised, as we have already seen, vote by ballot, universal suffrage, annual parliaments, payment of the members, and the abolition of the property qualification. But, if these points were granted, and became the law of the land, it is obvious that democracy would be triumphant in the British Parliament, and that monarchy could not long survive such a revolution. Besides, the Chartist leaders had been in the habit of holding what was called a " National Convention," which was a kind of parliament of their own, in which the leaders practised the art of government. It was a sort of normal school for revolution. The train was thus laid, and it seemed to require only a spark to ignite it; but a thick shower of sparks came from Paris, as if a furnace had been emptied by a hurricane. It would have been almost miraculous if there had been no explosions of disaffection in Great Britain under such circumstances.

The first place that reeled under the electric shock of the French Revolution was Glasgow. On the 5th of March, in the afternoon, a body of 5,000 men suddenly assembled on the Green in that city, tore up the iron railings for weapons, and thus formidably armed, they commenced an attack on the principal shops, chiefly those of gunsmiths and jewellers. The police, apprehending no outbreak of the kind, were scattered on their beats, and could afford no protection until forty shops had been pillaged and gutted, and property to the value of £10,000 carried off or destroyed. Next morning, about 10,000 persons assembled on the Green, armed with muskets, swords, crowbars, and iron rails, and unanimously resolved - "To march immediately to the neighbouring suburb of Calton, and turn out all the workers in the mills there, who, it was expected, would join them; to go from thence to the gas manufactory, and cut the pipes, so as to lay the city at night in darkness; to march, next to the gaols and liberate all the prisoners; and to break open the shops, set fire to and plunder the city." They immediately set ont for the mills of Calton, meeting on their way fourteen pensioners in charge of a prisoner. These they attempted to disarm, but the veterans fired, and two men fell dead. Instantly the rioters raised the cry, " Blood for blood!" and were wresting the muskets from the soldiers, when a squadron of cavalry galloped up with, drawn swords. The people fell back, and the riot was suppressed. It afterwards transpired that the Chartists in all the manufacturing towns of the west of Scotland only awaited the signal of success from Glasgow to break out in rebellion.

The prompt suppression of the movement was therefore a matter of great importance.

For some time a monster petition to the House of Commons was being signed by the Chartists in all the towns throughout the United Kingdom, and the signatures were said to have amounted to 5,000,000. It was to be presented on the 10th of April. 200,000 men were to assemble on Kennington Common, and thence they were to march to Westminster, to back up their petition. Possibly they might force their way into the House of Commons, overpower the members, and put Mr. Feargus O'Connor in the Speaker's chair. Why might they not m this way effect a great revolution, like that which, the working classes of Paris had just accomplished P If the French National Guards, and even the troops of the line, fraternised with the people, why should not the English army do likewise? Such anticipations would not have been unreasonable if parliamentary and municipal reform had been up to this time resisted; if William IV. had been still upon the throne; if a Guizot had been Prime Minister, and a York or a Cumberland at the Horse Guards. There would have been no revolution in Paris, had not the King and his ministers been infatuated; and the insurrection would have certainly been put down - as a far more desperate one was subsequently - had Cavaignac been at the head of the army. The Chartists, when they laid their revolutionary plans, must have forgotten the deep-rooted loyalty of the English people, and the intense popularity of the Queen. They could not have reflected that the Duke of Wellington had the command of the army; that he had a horror of émeutes; and that there was no man who knew better how to deal with them. Besides, every one in power must have profited by the unpreparedness of the French authorities, and the fatal consequences of leaving the army without orders and guidance. All who were charged with the preservation of the peace in England were fully awake to the danger, and early on the alert to meet the emergency. On the 6th of April a notice was issued by the Police Commissioners, warning the Chartists that the assemblage of large numbers of people, accompanied with circumstances tending to excite terror and alarm in the minds of her Majesty's subjects, was criminal; and that, according to an Act of the 13th Charles II., no more than ten persons could approach the Sovereign, or either House of Parliament, on pretence of delivering petitions, complaints, or remonstrances; and that whereas information had been received that persons had been advised to procure arms and weapons, to carry in procession from Kennington Common to Westminster, and whereas such proposed procession was calculated to excite terror in the minds of her Majesty's subjects, all persons were strictly enjoined not to attend the meeting in question, or take part in the procession; and all well-disposed persons were called upon and required to aid in the enforcement of the law, and the suppression of any attempt at disturbance.

Well-disposed people happily comprised the great mass of the population of all ranks and classes, who responded with alacrity to the appeal of the Government for co-operation. Great alarm was felt in the metropolis, lest there should be street-fighting and plundering, and it might be said that society itself had taken effective measures for its own defence. The 10th April, 1848, will be a day for ever remembered with pride by Englishmen, and posterity will read of it with admiration. In the morning, nothing unusual appeared in the streets, except that the shops were mostly closed, the roar of traffic was suspended, and an air of quiet pervaded the metropolis. No less than 170,000 men, from the highest nobility down to the humblest shopkeeper, had been enrolled and sworn as special constables - a great army of volunteers, who came forward spontaneously for the defence of the Government. In every street, these guardians of the peace might be seen pacing up and down upon their respective beats, and under their respective officers. Among them was Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, acting as a private, under the command of the Earl of Eglinton. No soldiers appeared in the streets; but, during the previous night, the Duke of Wellington had taken the most effective measures to prevent any violation of the peace. Strong bodies of foot and horse police were placed at the ends of the bridges, over which the Chartists must pass from Kennington Common to Westminster, and these were assisted by large numbers of special constables, posted on the approaches at each side. And lest these should be overpowered by the Chartists in attempting to force a passage, a strong force of military - horse, foot, and artillery - was kept concealed from view in the immediate neighbourhood. The public buildings were all occupied by troops and strongly fortified. Two regiments of the line were stationed at the Millbank Penitentiary. There were 1,200 infantry at the Deptford Dockyards. At the Tower, 30 pieces of heavy field ordnance were ready to be shipped by hired steamers to any spot where their services might be required. The public offices at the West-end, Somerset House, and in the City, were occupied by troops and stored with arms. The Bank of England was strongly fortified, sandbags being piled all round upon the roof, as parapets to protect the gunners, while the interior was filled with soldiers. There were also similar barricades to the windows, with loopholes for muskets. In the space of Rose Inn Yard, at the end of Farringdon Street, a large body of troops was posted ready to move at a moment's notice, and another in the enclosure of Bridewell Prison. At several points immediately about Kennington Common, commanding the whole space, bodies of soldiers were placed out of view; but ready for instant action. The Guards - horse and foot - were all under arms, in Scotland Yard and in other places.

In the meantime the Chartists had made their preparations, and, in all probability, a provisional government was part of their programme. The members of the National Convention met early in the morning at its hall in John Street, Fitzroy Square, and after this the members took their places in a great car, which had been prepared to convey them to the Common. It was so large, that the whole Convention and all the reporters who attended it found easy accommodation - Mr. Feargus O'Connor and Mr. Ernest Jones sitting in the front rank. It was drawn by six fine horses. Another car drawn by four horses contained the monster petition, with its enormous rolls of signatures. Banners with Chartist mottoes and devices floated over these imposing vehicles, and among them not the least appropriate was the one which expressed Guizot's contempt for the Reform party in Paris: "And Guizot laughed immoderately." The Convention thus drawn in state passed down Holborn, over Blackfriars Bridge, and on to the Common, attended by 1,700 Chartists, marching in procession. This was only one detachment; others had started from Finsbury Square, Russell Square, Clerkenwell Green, and Whitechapel. The largest body had mustered in the East, and passed over London Bridge, numbering about 6,000. They all arrived at the Common about ten o'clock, where considerable numbers had previously assembled; so the Common appeared covered with human beings. In all monster meetings there are the widest possible differences in the estimates of the numbers. In this case they were set down variously at 15,000, 20,000, 50,000, and even 150,000. Perhaps 30,000 was the real number present.

The great car which bore Feargus O'Connor and his fortunes was of course the central object of attraction. Everything about it indicated that some great thing was going to happen, and all who could get within hearing of the speakers were anxiously waiting for the commencement of the proceedings. But there was something almost ludicrous in the mode of communication between the tremendous military power which occupied the great metropolis, waiting the course of events, in the great consciousness of irresistible strength, and the principal leader of the Chartist convention. Immediately after the two cars had taken their position, a police inspector, of gigantic proportions, with a jolly and good-humoured expression of countenance, was seen pressing through the crowd towards Mr. O'Connor. His name was Magrath - no doubt an Irishman. He was the bearer of a message from the police commissioners, politely desiring Mr. O'Connor's attendance for a few minutes at the Horns Tavern. Mr. O'Connor immediately alighted and followed the inspector, whose burly form made a lane through the mass of peoples as if he were passing through a field of tall wheat. Murmurs were heard through the crowd. What could this mean? "Was their leader deserting, or was he a prisoner? A rush was made in the direction which they had taken, and it was said that their faces were blanched with fear, and that at one time they were almost fainting. Protected by those who were near them, they reached Mr. Commissioner Mayne in safety. The commissioner informed Mr. O'Connor that the government did not intend to interfere with the right of petitioning, properly exercised, nor with the right of public meeting; therefore they did not prevent the assemblage on the Common; but if they attempted to return in procession, they would be stopped at all hazards; and that there were ample forces awaiting orders for the purpose. The meeting would be allowed to proceed, if Mr. O'Connor pledged himself that it would be conducted peaceably. He gave the pledge, shook hands with the commissioner, and returned to his place on the car. He immediately announced to his colleagues the result of his interview, and the whole demonstration collapsed as suddenly as a pierced balloon; and if Guizot were in London, he might have " laughed immoderately," with much more reason than in the Chamber of Deputies. If they could not march in procession with a petition to the House of Commons, for what purpose did they assemble there? Was the revolution, for which they had so fully prepared, to become there and then a ridiculous abortion? Was the labouring mountain to bring forth a mouse? Some brief, fiery harangues were delivered to knots of puzzled listeners; but the meeting soon broke up in confusion. Banners and flags were pulled down, and the monster petition was taken from the triumphal car, and packed up in three cabs, which were to convey it quietly to the House of Commons. The masses then rolled back towards the Thames, by no means pleased with the turn things had taken. At every bridge they were stopped by the serried ranks of the police and the special constables. There was much pressing and struggling to force a passage, but all in vain. They were obliged to move off, but after a while they were permitted to pass in detached parties of not more than ten each. About three o'clock the flood of people had completely subsided; the demonstration was at an end, and order triumphed signally, without the appearance of a soldier in the streets, without the loss of a single life, or the shedding of a drop of blood - a fact which produced a profound sensation throughout the Continent. Had the movement been successful to any extent, it would have been followed by insurrections in the provincial towns. Early on the morning of the 10th, the walls of the city of Glasgow were found covered with a placard, calling upon the people, on receipt of the news from London, " to rise in their thousands and tens of thousands, and put an end to the vile government of the oligarchy, which had so long oppressed the country." Another placard was issued there, addressed to soldiers, and offering £10 and four acres of land to every one of them who should join the insurgents. Strange to say, the printers' names were attached to both these treasonable proclamations. They were arrested, but not punished.

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