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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 property qualification for MPs. and payment of MPs. The Chartists were therefore pushing for too much, too soon; in promoting a political answer to an economic problem O'Connor and the other Chartist leaders reflected "the confusion of ordinary beings in the face of mounting social complexity" (J. MacAskill).

Unlike the Anti-Corn-Law League, the Chartists had problems through the lack of funding and no parliamentary representation. Both of these problems were largely due to the fact that Chartism's support was mainly from the working class. The working class was the poorest paid sector of society and consequently had little or no spare cash with which to support a movement like Chartism. The Chartists had no parliamentary representation to put their case to parliament as a result of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which disenfranchised a large section of the working class. The necessary parliamentary representation, which played such a significant role in securing the repeal of the Corn Laws, was not granted to the Chartists until Feargus O'Connor was elected to parliament in 1847. By this time, it was too late largely because of Peel's socio-economic reforms of the 1840s. O'Connor tried to solve the Chartists' economic problems through his Land Plan in the late 1840s. However, the shares were far too expensive for the working class to be able to afford and O'Connor lost most of his money in the scheme.

O'Connor was unfortunate in that he came to the head of the Chartist movement after it had already begun to fail. The decline of Chartism after 1842 is thus seen to be O'Connor's fault by the historian Gammage simply because he was the main Chartist leader from 1842 onwards. However, the middle class or artisan Chartist leaders who had dominated Chartism between 1836 and 1842 were more responsible for the ruin of Chartism because they allowed the physical force Chartists to gain predominance over Chartism by failing to persuade parliament to accept the Charter in 1839 and 1842, and also because they abandoned Chartism after 1842. The more respectable leaders of Chartism abandoned the movement because they became disenchanted at the frequent recourse of the rank and file to violence. Lovett, Place and Hetherington thus became embroiled in an educational self-help scheme for the workers and Sturge became more involved in a scheme for world peace. In contrast to these moderate Chartist leaders O'Connor stood by Chartism through all its failures and could be said to have been a sustaining influence. This was through his ownership of the Northern Star, which helped to give Chartism a focus and give it a sense of continuity. Unlike the other Chartist newspapers such as The Charter and The Democrat which quickly disappeared, the Northern Star was in circulation from 1837 until Chartism petered out in 1852. In its heyday the Northern Star sold more copies than the Leeds Mercury and the average sales for 1839 were about 36,000 copies a week. In contrast to O'Connor's Land Plan, therefore, the Northern Star was a financial asset to O'Connor and was central to the Chartist movement. The positive influence O'Connor exercised over Chartism as a result of his ownership of the Northern Star was recognised by Harney when he said, "I am convinced that even in this respect, were O'Connor thrown overboard, we might go further and fare worse" (from a letter by G.J. Harney to F. Engels, 30 March 1846).

Contrary to Gammage's opinions Feargus O'Connor did not ruin Chartism but sustained it. If it had not been for O'Connor's efforts through the Northern Star, Chartism would have disappeared soon after the moderate Chartists had deserted it in 1842. Because of Chartism's diversity of aims and membership, its lack of organisation, the lack of parliamentary representatives, and the repressive actions of the government, Chartism was a spent force by 1842. This was partly a result of the fact that Chartism was a reflection of the decadent period 1830-50 and "was essentially an economic movement with a purely political programme" (from G.D.H. Cole, A Short History of the British Working Class Movement 1789-1847, 1948, p. 90). Chartism also declined dramatically in the 1840s because of the free trade work of Peel, which improved the standard of living of the working class. Considering the fact that Feargus O'Connor died in a lunatic asylum in 1855, it can be argued that Chartism ruined O'Connor rather than the other way round. His controversial Land Plan soaked up all the profits he made from the Northern Star. O'Connor passionately believed in Chartism but the fact that Peel's socio-economic reforms had improved the lot of the working man ensured that O'Connor's efforts were in vain.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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