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To what extent was Feargus O'Connor "the ruin of the Chartist movement"?

To use Feargus O'Connor as the scapegoat for the failure of Chartism, as Gammage does in the question, would be inadequate historically. This interpretation fails to acknowledge the other factors responsible for Chartism's ruin - the lack of organisation and co-operation between the leaders, the need for Chartism to have some representation in Parliament and the diversity of the Chartists' aims, for example - and is thus over-simplistic. O'Connor was only one of many leaders of the Chartist movement. He was, however, the people's favourite since he shared the working man's grievances. O'Connor did manage, however, to have various disputes with practically all of the other leaders because of his domineering temperament. For example, in 1843 O'Connor split with Bronterre O'Brien over O'Connor's controversial solution to the "Condition of England Question", his Land Plan. This disastrous scheme demonstrates how O'Connor was as confused as the movement he led. For a movement to have any chance of success the leader(s) need to be divorced from any emotional involvement with the movement's rank and file. The fact that O'Connor was emotionally involved with, and could be said to share their grievances could partly explain Chartism's failure.

Before examining the reasons for the failure of Chartism, it is necessary to give some form of identity to Chartism. It was not a simple movement comprising a disgruntled section of society; Chartism was not a small clique campaigning for better conditions of work; Chartism was a massive, mainly but not exclusively working class movement under which varied reform movements came to be associated. Indeed, it can be said that Chartism was as decadent as the period in which it appeared. The years 1830-50 were ones of unprecedented change in Britain, when the forces of the Eighteenth Century were declining and the new forces of the Nineteenth Century were gradually gaining predominance. The middle classes had been enfranchised by the Great Reform Act of 1832. Although this electoral reform was extremely limited in nature and kept the aristocratic system of society in place, the Great Reform Act established the principle for change which was to result in the more extensive reform of the 1867 Reform Act and the third Reform Act of 1884. In the 1840s free trade gained predominance over protectionism as a result of Peel's budgets of 1842 and 1844 and also his controversial repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Chartism was as contradictory as the period because it was made up of the Eighteenth Century radicalism of such men as Lovett and Place and the new discontents of Nineteenth Century socialism.

As Sir Charles Napier realised, Chartism's diverse character and inept organisation meant that Napier's troops could easily suppress the Chartists' attempts at rebellion. Chartism was a movement under which contradictory discontents of the working classes co-existed. Thus, Ernest Jones realised that a split within Chartism into "parallel movements" would indicate its death. Although Jones realised in 1852 that, "Union is the only guarantee of success" for the people, Chartism was characterised by great divisions. In London, Chartism was divided between the moral force London Working Men's Association and the physical force East London Democratic Association. The inability of the London artisan Chartists to co-operate with the predominantly East End dockers of the ELDA is similar to the LWMA's failure to co-operate with the Birmingham Chartists. Joseph Sturge's Complete Suffrage Union threatened to take control of Chartism with its plans to campaign for only universal suffrage, which Lovett and Place disliked. The "parallel movements" within Chartism which Jones thought would lead to Chartism's demise had already appeared in the 1840s. O'Connor denounced these variations - Church Chartism, Teetotal Chartism, Knowledge Chartism and Household Chartism - in an article in the Northern Star as "calculated to lead to sectional and party dispute" (Northern Star, 3 April 1841). As well as disagreeing with O'Brien in 1843 O'Connor also split with Harney in 1849 over Harney's red republicanism.

The lack of organisational skills by the Chartists can be aptly demonstrated by the fact that the Sacred Month of 1839, which was supposed to be widely supported, was only really attempted in Bolton. Sir Charles Napier, who commanded 6,000 troops in the Northern District in 1839, perceived that, "We have the physical force, not they" (from The Life of Sir Charles Napier, 1857). With the 'physical force' of 6,000 trained troops and the efficient organisation of the government, Napier could easily suppress the naive rioting of the Chartists. Melbourne's government and, after 1841, Peel's government used the railway network and the telegraph system to suppress the disturbances. As a consequence of this the Chartists believed that the government had at their disposal a 'standing army'. This was a gross exaggeration since in 1840 only 108 boroughs out of 171 had an organised police force.

Since Chartism had gained predominance in the "Hungry Forties" (1838-42) it was hardly surprising that it declined after Peel's reforms started to work. Through Peel's socio-economic reforms - his free trade budgets of 1842 and 1845 and the Bank Charter Act of 1844, for example - economic conditions were improved and the socio-economic reasons for Chartism's existence were removed. Just as O'Connor called Peel "an incipient Chartist" in 1846, Harney recognised in 1848 that "When trade is good, political agitation is a farce" (Northern Star, 2 September 1848). This socio-economic improvement combined with the government's repressive use of the railway and telegraph systems helped to ruin the Chartist movement.

Although O'Connor can be blamed for the multiplicity of the Chartists' aims, in that he resisted Sturge's attempts to reduce these to one, he was no more culpable than the other Chartist leaders. According to Wilson, O'Connor and the other Chartist leaders like Joseph Rayner Stephens "were the true pioneers in all the great movements of their time". These movements, significantly, were failures - the Anti-Poor-Law campaign, the Ten-Hour movement and Trade Unionism, for example. It can therefore be said that since Chartism was born from failure it was likely to return to failure. As well as promoting these campaigns the Chartists campaigned for the six points of the Charter - universal manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, the abolition of the pr