London Radicalism 1830-1843 A Selection of the Papers of Francis Place. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1970.
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I know how difficult it is, in a vast number of persons how impossible it is to remove preconceived opinions however erroneous they may be. Unfortunately a vast majority of our people, like indeed all other people, have not the capacity to receive new ideas, after they are—say 25 years of age— and this is the great impediment to general improvement, the reason why improvement in really useful knowledge goes on so slowly as it does. With this immense majority unless any new opinion that presents itself coincides with some old opinion, which they have they know not how obtained and for which they can give no accurate reasons,—they become incapable of examining the ground on which it has been formed and if therefore it be an erroneous opinion in error they must remain as long as they live.
Now I want you who can reason—to read this report—to attend to the facts—to put this question to yourself, and to answer, as free from prejudice as you may be able. Will the New Poor Law as it is, and as it is likely to be administered—elevate the character,
4 That whenever two thirds of England and Wales, a full half probably a much larger number of labourers were put into this condition, the effect was gradually to bring down, all sorts of labourers to an approximation to their own condition, in means of living and in understanding.
5th That at any amount of suffering to a comparatively small number of persons, it would [be] advisable to get rid of a system which so long as it continued could not fail to degrade the whole body of working people.
7th That children brought up in the Work-houses on the old system were unlike other children, were in fact qualified for evil courses, their condition being utterly inimical to any good purpose. That under the new system those unfortunate children will be extricated from the baneful effects of the old system and be placed in circumstances very superior to any in which it was ever possible to place them under the old system.
8 That if these be facts then the new poor law, will on a large scale, be one of the best possible means of preparing the common labourers and many others gradually to respect themselves and others, and thus prepare them to concert with the intelligent bodies of working men now being established to move systematically towards obtaining that knowledge which can alone enable them permanently to improve the condition of them all.
Observe that I make no reference to what is best or what is worst in government, my only purpose being to induce you to inquire seriously and to decide honestly, this question. Will or will not the present Poor Law aid in improving the large mass of common labourers throughout the country and be a step on the road towards that state which is so much desired by you and me and our fellow labourers in the good cause.
A new state of things in the March of Reform having now commenced I think there will be but little difference of opinion as to the course which Radical Reformers should pursue. The Westminster Reform Society met on Wednesday evening last, to determine if a Dinner should take place and instead of eating & drinking being uppermost in their minds a public meeting was resolved upon (see the Chronicle & Advertiser of this Morning) which I think may be held about next Monday week.
Now I want you to do some work for us—I want your Master Mind to be put into a state of activity as in olden times to produce the requisite Resolutions & possibly a petition to the House of Commons also to get us what funds you can. I have become in the first instance answerable for the expense.
We contemplate a Meeting at the Crown & Anchor the time is not suitable for Covent Garden. I sincerely hope that you are well—I could not attend the meeting of the Radical Club last night in consequence of residing out of town & the illness of my wife but I think that each member should now be called upon to convene meetings in the locality in which he resides for if there be inactivity now Radical Reform will be thrown overboard for many years.
Mr Prout on the part of some persons who were about to call a public meeting of the Electors of Westminster wrote to me and requested I would propose resolutions and a petition—This I did—and accompanied them with the following observations.
The first 4 resolutions are simple truths. I have put them in the present words, and form and order, as a continuation of the old mode of proceeding in Westminster. Westminster took the lead for many years as well in the declaration of opinions, as in the good teaching sort of way in which they were put and they produced good results.
There is nothing new in any of these resolutions, nor need there be. In 1780 at a great public meeting of the Electors a committee was appointed to make a report on the state of the Representation of the people and to propose a plan of reform. They reported at length and proposed—Annual Parliaments—Universal Suffrage—Voting by Ballot—No money Qualification for members—The Country to be divided into equal Polling Districts —The election to be taken at the same time on a day certain.
In 1819—Westminster went for Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage and Voting by Ballot. It must I think take its old position again in an open manly way or some of the large towns will take the lead and Westminster instead of being the good teacher will be looked upon as a worn out old driveller.
Don't on any account use the words extension of the suffrage—if you do there will be plenty of men present to ask what the words mean, the chairman will be embarrassed and an amendment will be proposed which will be carried that the words Universal Suffrage be substituted and the meeting will be made contemptible.
2 That during very many [years] preceeding the passing of the reform Acts in 1832 the electors of Westminster never ceased to require from the Legislature such acts as would secure to the whole people, 'full, free and equal right to elect representatives to serve in parliament'.
3 That upon every occasion when the electors of Westminster petitioned the house of commons for an extension of the right of suffrage they always coupled that request with another, namely that such acts might be passed as would restore to the people, the short parliaments which for centuries were enjoyed by their ancestors.
4 That on many such occasions the Electors of Westminster prayed the house of commons to protect the electors from all undue influence and intimidation, and from bribery and corruption by passing a bill which should direct the votes of the whole people to be taken by Ballot.
5 That the declaration made by Lord John Russell in the house of commons on the 20th of November last 'That voting by Ballot—Extending the Suffrage, and Triennial Parliaments were nothing else than a repeal of the Reform Act, to all of which he was opposed, and the tacit consent of the whole of her majesty's ministers to this declaration evinces a determination in them to withold from the people all further reform and is nearly a repetition of the declaration of the Duke of Wellington which caused his expulsion from office.
6 That the declaration of Lord John Russell that it was always intended. That the Reform Acts should give a preponderance to the Landed Interest in the Election of Members of parliament is a declaration that it was intended to give to the aristocracy the power to appoint a majority in the house of commons.
That the power of the aristocracy thus to place a majority of members in the house of commons will wholly prevent any measure whatever being carried in parliament, unless it accords with the wishes and conforms to the interests of the aristocracy, to the utter exclusion of all influence of the people in what should be their own house.
That the pretence that the Reform Acts were intended to restore to the people their share in the legislature, and their wholesome controul [sic] over the aristocracy, was intended to be, and is a gross fraud upon the people.
That it is therefore necessary that the reforms proposed in the preceeding resolutions of this meeting, should be demanded and insisted on by the people until they have been obtained and a due share of the government of the country has been thus secured to them.
That your petitioners have been disappointed at finding that the house of commons during the five years which have passed since the first step towards a reformation of the representation of the people in your honourable house, —has made no advance in carrying the intentions of the reform acts into effect.
That your petitioners have been further disappointed and sorely aggrieved by various reports which they believe are true of a determination of her majesty's ministers to resist all attempts to procure for the people any of the above named necessary amendments without the whole of which there never can be even an approximation to a full fair free and equal representation of the people in your honourable house.
The Committee met last night & feel very thankful to you for your kindness in framing Resolutions & Petition & for your offers & [?] in every way to assist us—but they think that it would be improper at this time to advocate Universal Suffrage, they suppose that the Constituencies are not yet sufficiently offended with the Ministry to adopt so decided a course. The Committee imagine that we should meet the Ministry upon their own ground & claim—that which they deny & in the first instance compel them to entertain the question & when that is accomplished then will be the time to name the kind of Reform desirable to have. Whether this be the wise course to pursue will admit of a difference in opinion but it was the general opinion of the Committee & the other course could not be carried.
1st That to secure to the People of the United Kingdom the right of choosing their Representatives in Parliament, to guarantee to them, the free & conscientious enjoyment of that right, against intimidation & corruption—& to provide for the responsibility of their Representatives, were the paramount objects of Parliamentary Reform at the passing of the Reform Bill, & will continue to be so until the House of Commons faithfully represents the Nation at large. That altho' from the rottenness of the system into which changes were introduced by the Reform Bill, such changes were necessarily amongst the first improvements demanded in the representation, yet for the absolute & lasting security of the great ends of Parliamentary Reform, further alterations of an equally important character were, & still are, required in the Electoral System, & to which those effected by the Reform Bill, were introductory & preparatory only. That this meeting deplores the fact that five years have been permitted to elapse by the party who introduced the Reform Bill & who (with the exception of a short interval) have enjoyed political supremacy in the Councils of the Empire during the whole of that time, without any attempts being made by them to place the Electoral System upon the solid basis of an extended suffrage, freedom of choice & frequent appeals to the Constituencies. That the consequences of such remissness to secure Parliamentary Reform in its full extent, to the Nation, by apt prompt & vigorous measures have been most disastrous to the cause of Freedom & Good Government in this country. That in as much as the Reform Bill increased the number of Electors, the opportunities for the exercise of Coercion & corruption have become multiplied, and as no measures have been introduced to protect the Constituencies against the perpetration of those flagrant offences, they are committed to an extent and in a manner more relentless & determined than was ever witnessed in this country at any former period. That whilst the independence & morality of the Electoral body is rapidly declining before these growing, & at present, irresistible evils, & the responsibility of the House of Commons to the Constituencies of the Empire is daily becoming less, the progress of useful & practical Amendments in every department of the State is arrested, & the benefits of the first steps already made towards improvement by the Reform Bill, entirely lost to the People.
It is therefore with sentiments of the deepest concern & regret that this Meeting looks upon the declaration made by one of Her Majesty's Ministers & tacitly assented to by his Colleagues in Office, that the Reform Bill is a final measure which the Electors of Westminster never considered it to be; & of the avowal made by the same Minister of his permanent hostility to the only measures by which a full fair & free choice can be made of National Representatives, & by which such Representatives can be made responsible to the People.
3rd That to protect Electors in the Conscientious exercise of the Suffrage, from the influence of intimidation & corruption, another of the great objects of Parliamentary Reform, it is necessary that the voting for Members of Parliament be by way of Ballot.
4th That in order to render the Representatives of the People responsible for the due discharge of the Trust reposed in them, another of the great objects of Parliamentary Reform, it is necessary to shorten the duration of Parliaments.
5th That the system of Registration created by the Reform Act and the present mode of Appeal to a Committee of the House of Commons do from their complication & uncertainty afford innumerable opportunities for causing vexation, annoyance, & expense as well to the Constituencies as the Representatives & require immediate Alteration.
6th That a Petition embodying these Resolutions be presented to the House of Commons, & that it be presented by our Representatives Colonel D. L. Evans & J. T. Leader Esq. who are hereby requested to support the prayer thereof.
May 8th Page 202 'The Peoples Charter, being the outline of an act of Parliament to provide for the just Representation of the People of Great Britain in the Commons House of Parliament embracing the Principles of Universal Suffrage, No property qualification, Annual Parliaments, Equal representation, Payment of Members and Vote by Ballot. Prepared by a committee of twelve persons, Six Members of Parliament and Six Members of the Working Mens Association and addressed to the people of the United Kingdom.'
The members of Parliament who were members of the committee never assembled never gave themselves any trouble about the matter. Mr Roebuck promised to draw a bill but his parliamentary duties and his long continued deplorable state of health totally prevented his keeping his promise—and the members of the Working Mens Association who were members of the committee found it too complicated and difficult in several respects for them. In this state Mr Lovett the Secretary earnestly intreated me to draw the bill. To this I consented provided the working mens Association would discontinue to countenance those who at various meetings abused the middle classes, calling them harsh names, imputing all manner of evil intentions to them and thus unnecessarily making enemies where they needed friends, and provided that he Mr Lovett would bring me a paper stating in exact words what were the points—and how his coadjustors thought they might be put into language the least offensive to any body since if any among them thought that any offensive expression was necessary I would not draw the bill. Mr Lovett was for himself satisfied and in a few days afterwards brought me the paper I had requested. I then drew the bill, and sent the draft to him with a letter requesting him to shew, the draft and the letter to Mr Roebuck. In the letter I requested Mr Roebuck to revise the draft, and assured both the Working mens association and Mr Roebuck that whenever the time should come when it would be necessary, that if he should be unable or disinclined, or no one more competent than myself should be found to convert the draft in as perfect a bill as it could be made, and give the reasons for every enactment, that I would do it myself.
Mr Roebuck thought the draft sufficient and was also at the time too ill and too much occupied to attend to the business and the draft was printed under the somewhat equivocal appellation of a Charter a name the Working Mens Association would not give up.
The Working mens association had been very diligent in circulating its very clever addresses, several of its members had been out as volunteer missionaries and the number of similar associations which had been formed by them was very great, and the circulation of the charter with the request in page 10 of the address which preceeds it—'that other Working Mens associations, would examine it and suggest improvements until it is so perfected as to meet as far as possible with general approbation' etc. caused it to be well understood by many thousands of persons. It was reprinted in some newspapers and long extracts were also published in a large number of country newspapers.
It was this circulation, and the great increase of Working mens associations which induced the Political Union at Birmingham to take up the matter. The addresses of the Working mens Association—the countenance they met with in a great many newspapers, the concurrence with the association of a considerable number of members of the house of commons, the circulation and sale of the Charter, and the numerous addresses from other similar associations gave to the association a credit and an amount of popular consideration which had never before been given to any body of working men on the question of Reform.
A copy of 'the peoples Charter', having been presented to the Radical Club with a letter recommending it to the notice of the members—Copies were ordered to be purchased and one to be sent to each of the members and a special meeting was called for the purpose of considering its contents. At this meeting it was resolved.
1st That the principles of Universal Suffrage. No property qualification. Annual Parliaments. Equal representation. Payment of Members and Vote by Ballot as contained in the proposed 'outline of an act to provide for the just Representation of the People in Parliament' and called 'the Peoples Charter' be recognised and approved of by this Club.
As it was expected that these resolutions would lead to a conference a committee of the following persons was appointed viz. Francis Place, William James Fox, James Roberts Black, William Henry Ashurst, Thomas Prout, Henry S. Chapman, Thomas Falconer. A conference having been appointed Colonel T. Perronet Thompson and Mr Joseph Hume M.P. were invited and attended, when several alterations in the details were made.
I am requested by the Working Men's Association to inform you that last meeting night the following list of persons was selected, by ballot, to be proposed at the Great Meeting, which is to be held in Palace Yard on the 17th September, as proper persons to represent London in the general committee that is now being formed. I doubt not of your being aware—that at all these large meetings Delegates are to be chosen to the amount of 49 in all, whose duty it shall be to take charge of the Peoples Charter and the National Petition and to otherwise promote the cause of Radical Reform. Several have already been elected for Birmingham and other towns, and we hope you will see the necessity at this critical period for uniting your talents and energies to promote the cause of the people as well as to prevent any folly or mischief that may arise if men like yourself stand apart or refuse to act in concert together.
You will not I fear find the business on the 17th in Palace Yard all plain sailing. I see by the Posting Bill that the High Bailiff has called 'a meeting of the Inhabitants of Westminster', but has not used the word 'others', as I told you I thought he would not. Every one I have seen since you were here is in favour of a repeal of the Corn Laws. Each one agrees that this is just the time to commence vigorous proceedings the crops being short and bread dear—as the English Merchants have bought up all the corn which can be spared in the Baltic and at Odessa; all that has been saved from former seasons and left little which is not the produce of the present season, and as our next harvest must be a scanty one we not having produced enough for our consumption for many years, so the price of bread must be very high this time next year, and proper exertions may under such circumstances compel the repeal of the Corn Laws. They argue too that the Peoples Charter is not a measure that can be accomplished for some years to come, and that exertions may be made for a repeal of the Corn Laws now that the time is favourable, at the same time too that exertions are made to convince the people that the Charter is a great and most important measure, and also—if that be possible to convince the Legislature that it will be expedient for them to repeal the laws so justly complained of by the people. To me this reasoning appears sound and conclusive, and I therefore concur with them in thinking it is wise to make the most of present and probable events.
Mr Crawfurd is writing a series of letters in the Glasgow Argus. Colonel Thompson has undertaken to collect fallacies on the Corn Laws from the Newspapers, and from late Speeches in Parliament, to answer them seriatim, and the Sun is to insert these papers every Monday and Wednesday. He and others have written to the Editors of many newspapers and requested them to copy from the Sun which many will do. These proceedings must then go on, they cannot be stayed and if they could they ought not to be stayed. I think that with a little judicious management you may turn them to account for the Charter. Should you so determine great care must be taken to keep the two questions distinct. In no case where it can be avoided should they be confounded. The Charter must be continually held forth as the general and all comprehensive measure, the Corn Laws as a very momentous measure though only one of detail. He who is desirous to have the corn laws repealed should have impressed on him the necessity of promoting the adoption of the Charter as the means of causing the repeal of all laws which embarrass Trade and Commerce and are in any way inimical to the welfare of the people and preventing any such laws being again enacted.
From what you told me I apprehend an attempt will be made at the meeting to set aside all proceedings respecting the Charter, and if it does not succeed, then to endeavour to vote an adjournment of all proceedings to some distant day and to substitute a petition against the Corn Laws in its stead. This will be a very dishonest proceeding. The meeting is called for a specific purpose, and for any body of men without due and proper notice of their intention to propose that the proceedings of which due and proper notice has been give shall be set aside, or in any way embarrassed with widely different propositions which the people have not been called together to discuss is as dishonourable and dishonest as any public proceeding can be; yet this was not very long ago the deliberate course agreed to be pursued by the 'Associations of the Working Men'. To their disgrace be it spoken—though only as a bye gone act never to be repeated. You will recollect that when a public meeting was about to be called, for the one measure which would have told at that time—The Ballot—that the intention to hold the meeting was abandoned, simply and only because the working people declared their intention to come to the meeting in great numbers and there propose and carry Universal Suffrage for which the meeting was not called. Depend upon it, and that too especially, in public proceedings 'Honesty is the best Policy'.
To quarrel is to do mischief, extensive mischief, therefore whoever may chuse to quarrel with you, heed them not, do you quarrel with none; but as you cannot have your own way, take no part in any ill natured proceedings, and on no account because others may behave improperly, and act impassionately, do you follow their bad example. If your proposition should be opposed defend it, recollecting however that opposition may justly be made by those who may think the proposition unlikely to be useful, according to their notion of what may be useful—do you in such a case let it be put to the vote, and adopted or rejected as the people chuse. Whichever way they may decide you will have no cause of complaint.
No one can on any ground be justified in proposing a petition against the Corn Laws at the meeting, as the Inhabitants have not been called together to consider that question. Should any one propose to set aside the Charter for the purpose of proposing the Repeal of the Corn Laws, I advise you and your friends to take matters as coolly as possible and avoid most carefully all passion and invective and imputation, and to argue the matter on its own merits solely. Its merits are great and should not be lost sight of on any account, however offensive and unjust the conduct of others towards you may be, and pray remember that I am giving you the advice I have frequently under similar circumstances followed myself. The case is simply this. You have put forward in plain concise clear language a most important object. You have called a public meeting in the most correct and orderly way, to discuss the subject in the hope and expectation that the meeting will adopt the propositions. The meeting has been called and the expenses have been paid by those who thinking it most important have determined to go through with the business and never under any circumstances to abandon it, and for any number of persons to come and attempt to set aside the very purpose for which the meeting is called and the expenses incurred, not by negativeing [sic] the propositions, but by proposing other resolutions relating to something for which the meeting is not called, and for which no notice having been given nobody can be prepared to expect is a proceeding so very disorderly, dishonourable and disgraceful that I hope no such course will be persisted in, but if it is that it will be treated by the assembled people as it deserves to be. There is but one honest way of proceeding, and that is, to determine the matter for which the meeting is called and that done, they who think that any other subject should be discussed at such a meeting, may sign a requisition to the High Bailiff to call another meeting for the purpose. This mode of proceeding will I have no doubt put you right at once, if it should not, it is plain that the people are not friendly to your propositions, but that they should be so, it is impossible to imagine. If you proceed thus you will put yourselves before the Nation as a body of plain, honest, sensible, discreet men and compel even your enemies to respect your proceedings and this under present circumstances you can effect in no other way.
Pray think of these things dispassionately, think also of collateral matters, and then you will be better qualified to cope with the enemy should he attempt to interrupt or set aside your proceedings.
Your opponents will be very generally honestly disposed men though there will be some among them who are sad rogues, it will be your duty as far as it may be in your power by conciliatory conduct to prevent the honest men being misled by the rogues.