London Radicalism 1830-1843: A Selection of the Papers of Francis Place. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 1970.
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This address is made to the men of the present day, in the hope that the plan of Reform proposed by the Association, will be adopted and carried on steadily, until, in due time, its objects shall be peaceably, but fully accomplished.
The first attempt, free from all party bias, to induce the people to concur in efforts to obtain a radical reform of the Commons House of Parliament, was made by the late Major John Cartwright in the year 1776, in a pamphlet entitled 'Take your Choice', which he greatly enlarged and re-published in 1777, heading the title page—'Legislative Rights'.
'Whether, indeed, the House of Commons be in a great measure filled with idle school-boys, insignificant coxcombs, led-captains, and toadeaters, profligates, gamblers, bankrupts, beggars, contractors, commissaries, public plunderers, ministerial dependants, hirelings, and wretches that would sell their country, or deny their God for a guinea, let every one judge for himself. And whether the kind of business very often brought before the House, and the usual manner of conducting it, do not bespeak this to be the case? I likewise leave every man to form his own opinion.'
Speaking of the Election of Members, he says:—'All men will grant that the lower House of Parliament is elected only by a handful of the commons instead of the whole, and this chiefly by means of bribery and undue influence. Men who will employ such means are villains; an assembly of such men is founded on iniquity; and, consequently, the fountain of such legislation is poisoned.'
Speaking of the corrupt proceedings of the House, he says:—'This has been, more or less, the condition of our Government ever since we have had long Parliaments We see the same corrupt, or impolitic, proceedings going on in the administration of a Harley, a Walpole, a Pelham, a Bute, a Grafton, and a North; and we see every Parliament implicitly obeying the orders of ministers. Some ministers we see more, some less, criminal; some parliaments more, some less, slavish; but we see all ministers, and all parliaments, guilty; inexcusably guilty, in suffering the continual and increasing prevalency of corruption from ministry to ministry.'
The efforts made by the Major at that time were not lost; his opinions were adopted and acted upon; several noblemen, and many gentlemen, headed by the Reverend Christopher Wyvill, held meetings in various English counties, and appointed delegates, who met in convention, from time to time, at the Thatched House Tavern, and at the St Alban's Coffee House, in St James's.
At the commencement of the year 1780, just sixty-two years ago, a great public Meeting of the Inhabitants of the City and Liberty of Westminster was held, for the purpose of promoting a Reform in the House of Commons, and at this meeting a general committee, consisting of a large number of persons, was elected; this committee met, and appointed a sub-committee, which, in the month of April, made a report to the general committee, in which they recommended:—
The Earl of Derby,
The Earl of Effingham,
The Earl of Surrey,
The Earl of Selkirk,
and Lord Kinnaird;
by eleven members of the House of Commons, all of whom were well known and popular; by a considerable number of gentlemen, many of whom were eminent in various professions; and by many who afterwards became conspicuous for their great talents and eminent services. The number of members was 166.
Neither these societies nor the other political bodies at that period had any continuous existence; they met occasionally, talked over the concerns of the moment, ordered a tract to be printed or an advertisement to be inserted in the newspapers. Their proceedings were neither adapted for, nor were they addressed to, the working people, who, at that time, would not have attended to them.
Efforts to procure a reform in the House of Commons were made in many places. The number of public meetings and of petitions to the House of Commons increased continually, when the coalition of Lord North and Charles James Fox, in the spring of 1783, caused an opinion to be generally entertained that no faith could be reposed in public men, and suspended all active proceedings in favour of parliamentary Reform; which lingered on, and were, at length, nearly extinguished.
In this state of things, in November 1792, the London Corresponding Society was founded. This was the first attempt ever made to induce the working people to interfere in political matters, which it has ever been contended, they were incompetent to understand. Hitherto, they had never, of their own will, interfered in any political concern, but as supporters of some party or person; and then only as mobs, or as tools, when they were ill-used, or sacrificed to party interest.
The London Corresponding Society was established on a plan for doing business; it soon extended, and was formed into small portions, called divisions; every division met once a week at a time certain, and as much oftener as it pleased. Each division had a secretary, and other officers, to form a general committee, which met once a week. This committee was the legislative body. The divisions also elected five members, who formed the executive committee, which made a weekly report of its proceedings to the general committee. Each division elected a secretary, an assistant secretary, and a treasurer.
The secretaries and treasurer were bound to attend the general committee. (fn. 1)
In its arrangements for business and in some other particulars, the society differed from all others which preceded it, as it did from all which succeeded it, excepting some few of the political unions during the time the Reform Bills were before parliament in 1831-2. . . .
The men who originated and those who conducted the London Corresponding Society, did not expect to carry any reform for a number of years; their first business was to form a political public of the middling and smaller tradesmen, and others whose circumstances were similar, and of the working people. This could only be done by giving them such political information as should induce them to detach themselves from the control of political adventurers, and enable them to see their own welfare and the prosperity of their country in a House of Commons, as independent of the aristocracy as it could be made. They, therefore, confined their agitation to the two points only which, under their circumstances, were the most easily understood, and the most likely to be adopted, namely:—
In 1793, the Society sent two of its members as delegates to a convention about to be held at Edinburgh, where one had previously met; several of the delegates, including the two from the Society, were seized, tried on charges of sedition, and transported for fourteen years.
That atrocious stretch of power terminating so favourably to the government, induced them to expect that London juries would follow the example set by the Scotch courts; and, making too sure of their victims, they, on the 12th May, 1794, seized eleven men, nearly all of whom were members of the London Corresponding Society, and caused these men, of unexceptionable conduct in life, to be indicted for high treason. Three of them were tried at the Old Bailey, and acquitted; and the remainder were discharged from the close confinement to which they had been subjected during seven months.
This was a great mortification to ministers, and compelled them to abandon their list of proscriptions, of the existence of which no doubt has been entertained, and, with it, their project for further abridging the freedom of the people.
Disappointed and vexed beyond endurance, the bad Government, at the head of which were Pitt, Grenville, and Dundas, the session in the Autumn of 1795 was commenced by the introduction of two bills, one in the Lords by Lord Grenville, enacting 'new-fangled treasons'—the other in the Commons, by Mr Pitt, enacting new seditions, and both for the purpose of coercing the people to the greatest possible extent. Pitt's Bill limited the number of persons who should be permitted to meet for any political purpose to fifty, and thus extinguish the London Corresponding Society; but ministers were again to be disappointed; the Society altered its arrangements, and conformed to the law; rapidly increased its numbers and its importance, and was gradually forming a political public. This could not be borne, and, therefore, in 1798, ministers again 'exerted a vigour beyond the law'; they caused a very large number of persons to be seized, and confined them in various prisons; they suspended the Habeas Corpus act, and these persons, against whom no offence could be alleged, were detained in prison nearly three years; they were then discharged, without trial or public inquiry.
A Bill was laid before Parliament, and, with the same indecent haste with which that to suspend the Habeas Corpus act had been passed, the two Houses of Parliament passed the bill to put down political societies, naming the London Corresponding Society as the society especially to be extinguished.
These acts do not, however, forbid the existence of associations for procuring a reform of the House of Commons; and this Society will conform to the Pitt and Castlereagh laws, bad as they are, and disgraceful to the nation as is their continuance in the Statute Book.
The lessons so carefully and wisely taught by the London Corresponding Society, have been well learned by vast numbers of people; and, notwithstanding the late irregularities of bodies of men whose information is still imperfect, the strong conviction that the future prosperity of the people must depend upon their having a House of Commons, fairly elected by the whole body of the people, has continually increased, and is increasing.
It was expected that the Reform Bill, brought into Parliament in 1831, would put an end to the corruptions of the House of Commons; but in the progress of the bill through the House, clauses were inserted in it which, together with the small number of electors in very many of the boroughs, made the elections of members mere matters of influence and money; and the House of Commons is now as corrupt as it was when in the power of the boroughmongers before the Reform Bill was passed in 1832.
The unjust laws which the corrupt House of Commons have suffered to remain, have prevented the improvement of agriculture, limited trade, commerce, and manufactures, and, consequently, reduced the employment of the people and the real amount of their wages; they have destroyed the small comforts of millions, deprived hundreds of thousands of a portion of their food, the forerunner of disease and death, and compelled them to believe that no remedy for any of these evils can be found but in a House of Commons elected by the whole people.
The extent of information amongst the people appears to warrant the conclusion that the time has come when Associations, to procure a thorough Reform of the House of Commons, may be formed, without reference to classes or parties, and free from any particular denomination, excepting that of parliamentary Reformers. That such associations may be expected to be very numerous, and be composed of every rational man, who wishes for good government, to promote and sustain the well being of the people.
A plan, which, while it can give no offence to any person who really believes that a House of Commons truly representing the people is necessary to their welfare, has been adopted by several public men, and others; an Association will be commenced immediately, and the good work carefully, honestly, and vigorously carried on.
That every man, whether he be the occupier of a whole house, or a lodger in some part of a house, who has been rated to any parliamentary, county, municipal or parish rate for six months, shall be rated to an election rate, and be put upon the voting register, for the polling district in which he resides; and every such person, so qualified, shall receive his voting card, entitling him to vote at all elections within that district.
That every man, whether he be the occupier of a whole house, or a lodger in some part of a house, or a servant or inmate, not being rated as above directed, shall have the right to cause himself to be rated to the election rate; and when he has been rated for six months, he shall be put upon the voting register for the polling district in which he resides, and every such person so qualified, shall receive his voting card, entitling him to vote at all elections within that district. (fn. 2)
To devise and carry into effect a plan, by which a weekly account of the proceedings of every such society may be published, and thus to make the proceedings of all known to all, without in any way breaking the obnoxious laws which limit the intercourse of reformers in different parts of the country.
It is believed that the time has arrived when this comprehensive plan of Parliamentary Reform will be acceptable to very large numbers of persons in every part of the country, and that it will be eminently successful.
One great advantage of the plan, is its easy adaptation to every man's means, inasmuch as the rate of subscription of each particular society, to support its necessary expenses, may be made to conform to the particular circumstances of the Members and of the locality. No expense can be incurred in any society, unless it originates within the particular Association, and at the will of the Members thereof.
Four General Elections, and a number of intermediate contests have fairly and fully brought it to the test of experience. And what has it done for you? Are you represented? Have you obtained the long desired blessings of good and cheap government? The very questions seem like a mockery.
In the worst days of the unreformed Parliament, the great mass of the people never were further from the possession of their rights, and the enjoyment of legislative security for their interests, than they are at the present moment. Never was the country more entirely under the domination of a class. The landed proprietary overrides both the political parties in Parliament; untaxing itself, and taxing all others, at its own sovereign pleasure. We are enthralled in a sordid slavery, of which the worst feature is, that it can be enforced under the forms of a reformed representation. Nay, it is through the agency of those forms that the landed oligarchy has attained its absolute and unprecedented ascendancy.
Such is the reward of the magnanimous efforts by which you necessitated a change in the old system of corruption and nomination. That a change took place, was your work. In May 1832, the Whig Ministry shewed its weakness, and the Court its treachery. But the political unions mustered in their strength; the people every where evinced their determination, and their energy; the momentary triumph of corruption was baffled; and the Bill was carried,—which has disappointed all your just expectations.
What have you got by the Reform Bill? In the first Parliament elected under it, an overwhelming majority for the Whig Ministry was returned. And what did that majority do for you? It passed the infamous Irish Coercion Bill; a measure worthy of the worst days of Pitt and Castlereagh. It left untouched the atrocious laws against popular meetings and associations. It voted the continuance of flogging in the army, and of impressment in the navy. It peremptorily refused the Ballot, and proclaimed the antireform and absurd doctrine of finality. These were the first-fruits of the Reform Bill, while the popular enthusiasm that procured its enactment was yet unabated, while Toryism was yet stunned and prostrate; and while the authors of the Bill had ample power to carry through Parliament whatever it pleased them to propose.
What did you get by the Reform Bill when the crisis came of a Tory invasion of the Government in 1835? The demon which politicians dreamed had been laid for ever, arose and stared you in the face. What power confronted this prompt and insolent attempt? The new system gave a majority of just ten votes against the old oppressors. That paltry majority sufficed to restore the Whigs to office, and it also sufficed to show that you had gained no security against misgovernment. The feebleness of the ministry became a constant apology for disgraceful concessions to Toryism; it never acted as a motive for the extension of popular rights. Even in what was called the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge, there was a spirit analogous to that of Sir Robert Peel in his proposed revision of the Corn Laws; the working people were deprived, by severe restrictions, of such publications as had circulated amongst them; and the daily press was preserved, an untouched and inpenetrable monopoly.
Another election came, in consequence of the demise of the king. The Whigs had now the advantage of court favour. But the result was, the same little majority; the same vacillating and imbecile conduct. What did you, the People, gain by the last Parliament, the third under the Reform Act? What one great measure in your favour did it entertain? Its course ended by rejecting even a Government proposition, for partially, and only partially, untaxing your daily bread.
And now, the last election has delivered you up, bound hand and foot, into the power of those who seem disposed to turn the screw so long as a drop of blood is to be squeezed out of your veins. Tory faction and landed oligarchy are triumphant and uncontrolled. So much for the working of the Reform Bill of 1832. Is it not time we had another, and a better?
The causes of this miserable failure may be easily traced. The Reform Act never realized even the limited extent of the Elective Franchise it professed to establish. Two large classes of dependent or corrupt voters were added to the original scheme,—the corrupt freemen of corporate towns, and the agricultural tenants-at-will. Protected by the Ballot, both might have voted honestly, and been practically taught political integrity. Without such protection, they have unavoidably become the tools of the profligate wealthy. Over other classes of voters, all the corrupt influences have been preserved in their full force. To these have been added the expense and annoyances of a complicated and vexatious system of registration. Some have been disfranchised, and others enfranchised, no one could tell why or wherefore. The rights and duties of citizenship are surrounded by a hedge of thorns; the money power, which is the power of corruption, guarding the only access. Venal boroughs, with small numbers of electors, have sprung up to supply the place of nomination boroughs; and have been defended by the authors of the Reform Bill, on the same grounds and with the same arguments. There has been no representation of the people; nor can there be under the present system. In its practical working, it has given various results; a large majority for Whigs; an even balance of parties; and a large majority for Tories; but it has never given a real House of Representatives, guarding and extending the rights of the people, and promoting their interests.
The time, then, is come to demand a new Reform Bill. In the statement of the objects of the Metropolitan Parliamentary Reform Association, we have described the provisions which, in our opinions, would secure a true and full representation. It is inconceivable to us that the existence of a slave class should be necessary to national freedom. We aim at obtaining a vote for every man, free voting, proportionate representation, and responsible Parliaments: that the nation may be well-governed. It cannot be worse governed than it has been by factions. Even the authors of the Reform Bill compromise, must now feel that it is a failure. After progressively changing the relative position of parties in favour of Toryism, its last result has been to give a commanding majority, for the express purpose of upholding a bread tax. Do you require further demonstration? The present Government and Parliament bid fair to furnish it.
People of Great Britain, are you content with this state of things? If you are, we can only make our own solitary and unavailing protest against a policy which threatens with speedy destruction our commercial and manufacturing interests, starving the workman, and ruining the capitalist; against a class ascendancy, which sacrifices the many to the few, and permanently impoverishes the nation for the sake of temporarily enriching the landowners; against a legislation in which every great public object is made subordinate to the tactics, and the ambition of political parties; and against a nominal representation, the root of all these evils, which distinguishes the privileged from the enslaved, by no plausible or consistent test whatever, but trampling upon principle, makes a mockery of the forms of freedom, and debases humanity in the name of all that should secure its elevation and its progress.
For you, People of Great Britain, we demand a real Representation. It is for you to decide whether we do it effectually, or only so as to clear ourselves by denouncing a servility, degradation, and ruin, the tide of which we cannot stay. It is obviously vain any longer to put your trust in political parties; or to seek relief from the guidance of party leaders. The folly of compromising measures is amply demonstrated by experience. There is no hope but in the simple, broad, first principles of representation. They are our watch-word; whoever shrinks from it, or whoever abuses it. They are our standard, and we nail it to the mast. For real representation we associate; for nothing else, and nothing less. The nation has no other hope. Without it, the millions of this great people, so long esteemed an heroic race, have no chance or prospect but that of being plundered, cheated, insulted, spurned, despised, and ruined. Will you associate with us to work out our deliverance? We will shew you how to do so legally. If you come forward like men, we cannot but do so triumphantly.
Union is strength. Let us fairly try its force. We need no arms, no illegal combination, no secret confederation. Our objects and plans, our numbers, proceedings and determination, will all be bared to heaven and earth. It is for those who are ashamed, or fearful, or intent on sinister purposes, to shun the light. With us, the end and the means are alike honourable. We seek the freedom of a citizen for each, and the prosperity of a community for all. Join with us; arouse yourselves, People of Great Britain! in a spirit worthy of your national character; associate, with the resolve never to relax or compromise, until you have a complete, free, and equal Representation; and the day of triumph over the sordidness of faction, the servility of forms, and the insolence of aristocracy, will not be far distant.
At a meeting of the Business Committee held at the office of the Association on Friday June 3rd 1842, there were present:—Francis Place (in the chair), P. A. Taylor, S. Harrison, H. Hetherington, J. R. Black
1 The Secretary laid before the Committee the address of the Association to the inhabitants of Nottingham, which was read, and ordered to be sent immediately with a number of the printed papers no. 1.2.3.
Favourably. Weekly Dispatch, Morning Advertiser, Spectator, Examiner, Morning Sun, Evening Sun, British Statesman, Bell's Life in London, National Association Gazette, Morning Chronicle, Globe, Cambrian, North Staffordshire Mercury, Stockport Chronicle, Gateshead Observer, Doncaster Gazette, Hull Rockingham, Suffolk Chronicle, Leceistershire (sic) Mercury, Welshman, Sheffield Iris, Aylesbury News, Kent Herald, Hampshire Independent, Gloucester Journal.
From Sir John Morris, Skilly Park, agreeing on the necessity of a union of all classes for a Reform of the House of Commons, but being as yet unwilling to extend the Suffrage as far as the Association proposes.
Also, that Mr Prout was to make arrangements for a Lecture at Wandsworth; that P. A. Taylor jun'r had agreed to lecture for the Association, and that Jonathan Duncan, had likewise agreed to do so, and would go to Deptford to arrange with Mr Wade, for delivering a lecture there, and that it was probable Mr Roebuck would agree to deliver a lecture at the Crown & Anchor.
And that, some doubts having been raised as to the legality of lecturers going forth by authority of the Association, he had written to Mr Roebuck & since waited upon him, as counsel of the Association, for his opinion.
5 Mr Hume's letter to the Secretary, Mr Hume's letter to Mr Prout, and Mr Prout's letter to Mr Hume, were read, and ordered to [be] placed together in the letter book (see letter book p5) The secretary was directed to write to Mr Prout requesting him to press Mr Hume for an answer to his letter.
7 Mr Huggett's report was read. Friday visited 17 persons, with no result. Saturday visited 26 persons, with no result. Monday visited 32 persons, with no result except 2 declining. Tuesday visited 17 persons, with no result, except one declining. Wednesday visited 22 persons, of whom one will be a member, 4 decline, & 17 as yet no result. Friday visited 21 persons, of whom 9 will be members, 1 declines & 11 as yet no result.
8 The secretary was directed to summon all the members of the association who had paid their subscriptions, to a General Meeting, on Friday next, at 12 o'k precisely, to consider the propriety of dissolving the association.
10 The ballance [sic] of cash on hand after paying outstanding accounts, and rent becoming due, with the proceeds of the furniture if the association be dissolved, to be paid to the secretary as all he is to receive for the settlement of his unpaid salary.
At an adjourned special general meeting of the association, held at the offices, on Friday Mar. 17th 1843, to consider the propriety of dissolving the association there were present:—H. Warburton Esq. in the chair, F. Place, P. A. Taylor, Samuel Harrison, Thos Prout, Geo. Beacon, J. Lyon, C. Elf, J. Dawes, J. Duncan, Dr Wade, A. Morton, C. Westerton, B. Wills, W. D. Saul, Dr Bowkett, Dr Latzky, Muntz, J. B. Brown, J. R. Black.
1 The accounts up to Mar. 4th as audited by W. Williams Esq. M.P. were examined. Mr Place requested that any member not satisfied would ask whatever question he liked relating to the accounts in order that the most satisfactory explanations might be given. After some questions and explanations, and the Secretary had read the 10th entry of the last mtg of Bus. Com., the accounts appearing satisfactory to the meeting they were passed.
2 The Secretary was directed to read the Report of the Business Committee, narrating the proceedings of the association, & recommending its discontinuance till circumstances arise more favourable to the prosecution of its objects.
4 Mr Prout opposed to the dissolution & would move an amendment, which Mr Wills seconded. 'That a committee be appointed to procure an Honorary Secretary, & to make arrangements for the occasional meeting of the association, at some room not incurring any considerable expenses.'
5 When Mr Warburton proposed that the resolution should be shaped differently, to which the meeting assented. And it was resolved 'That the meetings and expenses of this Association be for the present discontinued.'
6 Mr Prout then moved and Mr Duncan seconded 'That a committee be appointed to procure an honorary secretary and to consider further proceedings, with a view to occasional meetings in order to be in readiness for action when necessary', which was carried; the following gentlemen being appointed the committee: Thos Prout, Dr Wade, Dr Latzky, Mr Mentz [sic], Mr Morton, Jon. Duncan, Dr Bowkett.