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Chartism and the Anti-Corn-Law League

There was no organic connection between the Chartists and the Anti-Corn-Law League because their aims were totally different although they were not necessarily incompatible. Frequently, both groups had been associated in radical politics in the early 18-teens and 1820s. The change came after the 1832 Reform Act because of subsequent legislation. The Poor Law and Ten-Hour agitations assumed that the economic interests of the employers and workers were mutually hostile. The Anti-Corn-Law League tried to show that all classes would benefit from the repeal of the Corn Laws but met the suspicion of the working classes because of the results of earlier agitations.

Anti-Corn-Law agitation was found among the working classes particularly in towns like Sheffield, Halifax, Huddersfield, Manchester, Liverpool and Bolton but the Anti-Corn-Law League was very much a middle-class organisation and was seen by Chartists as a rival. Early sympathy between political radicals and free traders was lost by 1839.

There was much antagonism for the Anti-Corn-Law League from rank-and-file Chartists, although some links existed, especially from ex-moral force Chartists who disliked the physical force element of the movement. Also there was some co-operation at leadership level among the Chartists from men like Sturge.

The Anti-Corn-Law League believed that Chartists were deluded by naive Utopianism and that constitutional reform could not solve economic or social hardship. They saw Chartism as a misdirection of energies. Physical force Chartism was seen as hooliganism, but the Anti-Corn-Law League did try to court working class support because they saw the landed interest as the greater enemy. The Anti-Corn-Law League perceived the landed classes as the symbol of past glory, yet still holding and exercising power against the national interest. After failing to win much Chartist support, the Anti-Corn-Law League ignored Chartism except as the 'threat' to the landed class. The Chartists therefore fell foul of the upper and middle classes.

The Chartists' attitude towards the Anti-Corn-Law League was more complex.

"the tyranny of the aristocracy, and the foolish insolence of the Chartists, which has exasperated into madness the unnatural hatred which the have-somethings bear to the have-nothings".

"Your first step to entire freedom must be commercial freedom - freedom of industry. We must put an end to the partial famine which is destroying trade, the demand for your labour, your wages, your comforts, and your independence".

Between the two there was a fundamental philosophical gulf.

The Anti-Corn-Law League
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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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