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Explain the hostility that existed between the Chartists and the Anti-Corn-Law League

The Anti-Corn Law League was essentially a middle class movement wanting the repeal of the Corn Laws and free trade. The Chartists were demanding the six points which included universal manhood suffrage. Thus there does not appear to be an organic connection between the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists. One can imagine that there would be total hostility between the two movements.

However, up until 1842 the Anti-Corn Law League made numerous attempts to court Chartist support. They wanted Chartist support to prove a powerful argument to a House composed predominantly of landowners. They believed that Parliament was more likely to be persuaded by a reasoned national demand than by one which appeared to come from a sectional interest. The Anti-Corn Law League did, in some instances, gain Chartist support, which serves to dispel the notion that there was total hostility between the two movements. Thus, the Anti-Corn Law League attempted to close contact with the complete Suffrage Union which was a example of moderate Birmingham radicalism. The complete Suffrage Union only lasted a few months and Sturge could not agree with the free trade programme. There were also attempts to form Operative Anti-Corn Law Leagues among the working class. Such an association was formed at Leicester and it was affiliated to the main Leicester League. The Radical Leicester wrote that '....many of the better paid and relatively more educated... Chartists favoured repeal of the Corn Laws and were ready to resume co-operation with the middle classes.'

Although many radicals turned in disillusionment to Chartism in 1837-38 repeal still held a double attraction for them; it formed part of the attack on 'Old Corruption' and it promised cheap bread and prosperity. Ebenezer Elliott, a Sheffield manufacturer and reformer, expressed a common practical attitude when, in September 1838, he came out 'for the Charter but not for being stoned first'. When commercial and harvest crises coincided, Chartists, Protectionists and Owenites found it difficult to match the popularity of the free trade question.

However, despite their courting of the Chartists, the League did dislike them for a number of reasons. They felt that Chartism was utopian in its principles; the Chartists were asking for too much and they ought to centre their attention on one specific goal, for example, Corn Law repeal. There was an element of condescension in the League's attitude towards the Chartists. Thus, in 1842 Cobden complained to Sturge that the Chartists did not seem to understand their real position. They attacked capital, machinery, manufactures and trade which were the 'only materials of democracy' while 'leaving alone the aristocracy and the state which are the materials of the oligarchical despotism under which they are suffering'. This element of superiority over the Chartists is seen in the following comment by Cobden. He said that 'we must deal frankly with their deluded followers by telling them on all occasions that they are powerless without the aid of the middle-class . '. The condescending nature of Cobden's comment perhaps stresses the fact that the League would not have been happy with an equal partnership with the Chartists. The realisation of this fact could have led to Chartist hostility towards the League. We gain the impression hat the League was angry because it could not entice total Chartist support.

The League could also have been hostile to Chartism because of Chartist opposition to their meetings. The Chartists consistently broke up their meetings. A free trade newspaper of 1838 described the Huddersfield meeting of 4 March in the following terms '....the conduct of the universal suffrage men during the discussion was such as to excite the unmitigated disgust of every well-regulated mind'. If such conduct did not make the League hostile to Chartism, it certainly made it fearful. Gammage in his History of the Chartist Movement claims that the result of the Chartist opposition to the Free Traders 'drove those agitations into holes and corners....' It is true to say that in their courting of Chartism, the League mainly attracted the moral force element, for example Lovett and Vincent. The League was scared away by the physical violence of Chartism. Like the moral force Chartists, League members believed that change should come peacefully through constitutional change.

It is perhaps true to say that Chartist hostility towards the Anti-Corn Law League was stronger than the League's dislike for Chartism. Unlike the League, the Chartists felt that they had nothing to gain from an alliance with the middle classes. The Chartists had a feeling of mistrust towards the middle-classes which dated back to the 1832 Reform Act. The working classes had supported the middle classes in the hope of being enfranchised. However, the middle-classes gained the vote while the working classes gained nothing except a sense of deep betrayal. The working classes also felt the middle-classes to be responsible for the damaging Whig legislation of the 1830s, for example, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and the Factory Act of 1833. The mistrust towards the League is reflected in O'Connor's attitude. He remarked that the League 'offered you the minimum necessary to gain their ends'.

There was also an increasing working class consciousness at this time. Many Chartists believed that the middle-classes did not and could not share the same interests as themselves. A group of London Chartists validated this view when they said, 'for our cause, what is the people's cause, is not the cause of party or failure but the cause of the great mass of the industrious classes'. The working class or Chartist hostility towards the middle-class, or the League, is therefore understandable.

Though dislike of the middle-classes was probably a common sentiment amongst the working classes, the attitude towards free trade varied. There were free traders who stipulated that a fight for the Charter should have priority. This view was commonly expressed by the rank and file of the Chartists. Some Chartists believed that repeal might be desirable but would only benefit the working class if it were accompanied by other measures after the passage of the Charter. Other Chartists displayed total hostility towards the League. The fact that the League was capable of splitting the Chartists in this way must have caused some hostility amongst the Chartist leaders.

Unlike the League, the Chartists could not display a united front. The leaders of Chartism especially O'Connor must have felt some hostility towards Cobden and Bright. These two League leaders were eloquent and capable of giving reasoned, logical arguments. O'Connor was merely a demagogue with the capacity to influence a mob. This is best illustrated by looking at the Northampton meeting of 1844. To Cobden's thesis that repeal would benefit all classes, O'Connor could produce no effective reply, but was reduced to a general lament at the progress of machinery in industry.

The Chartists who displayed total hostility towards Chartism did not believe that free trade would bring them any benefits. The League claimed that a repeal of the Corn Laws would give manufacturers more outlets for their production, expand employment, lower the price of bread, make agriculture more efficient and productive, expose it to foreign competition and promote international peace through trade contact. James Leach, however, of the Mechanics Institute, Birmingham, showed that repeal of the Corn Laws would not increase the wages of the workers. He stated that although the export trade of the country was rapidly increasing in the years 1793-1815, within that period the wages of manufacturing operatives had sunk from 33s 3d to 14s. At this period, the Corn Laws were not even in existence. In their speeches neither Cobden nor Bright could bring any guarantee that Free Trade would lead to higher wages. Also, John Campbell, the Secretary of the National Chartist Association and author of An Examination of the Corn and Provision Laws (1841 ) insisted that free trade would cripple British agriculture and extend 'still further the curse of the factory system'.

Many Chartists felt that the answer to the Corn Law question was the Charter. They felt that if they helped the League to gain repeal, then they would be made to suffer afterwards. Thus, O'Connor wrote in The Northern Star on 26 January 1839, that if repeal of the Corn Laws was 'preceded by universal suffrage, justice will be done to all ... whereas if done by a class, it will be turned to the advantage of that class'. The Chartists believed that only when they had universal suffrage could they be sure that legislation was being passed for the benefit of all. They believed that if they had suffrage then it would be the tool by which they could effect repeal of the Corn Laws, and the ten hour day, for example.

Thus, the Chartists realised that a change in their position would not come from repeal of the Corn Laws; the employer would still have the power to exploit the working classes. The Chartists were hostile to the League because it did not sympathise with their cause. The members of the League had gained the vote in 1832 therefore they were not keen to change their privileged position by helping to enfranchise the working classes. Similarly, it was obvious that that League was only interested in using the working classes for its own ends; it was not interested in Chartist demands. This can be seen by the fact that Cobden was a known opponent of factory reform and of legislation to limit the hours worked by adults in factories.

Chartist hostility towards the League also stemmed from the fact that they believed the Plug Plots in Lancashire to have been provoked by manufacturers. These manufacturers were members of the League and they had reduced wages knowing that their action would meet with violent resistance.

As has already been said, hostility between the League and the Chartists was at its worst before 1842. After 1842 The Anti Bread Tax Circular and its successor, The League, contains very few references to Chartism and show little interest in working class needs. The movement became far more than previously a middle class agitation. Similarly, the Northern Star in no way abandoned hostility to the League but after 1842 it contains noticeably fewer reports of successful interruptions of the League's meetings.

Perhaps it can be said that the major hostility of the League stemmed from its failure to woo Chartist support. The Chartists were mainly hostile to the League because they were afraid of this powerful threatening union which displayed a unity that Chartism lacked. The lack of a clear, consistent policy towards the League made the Chartists hostile as a means of self-defence.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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