‘Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’
In his History of the Chartist Movement, the contemporary Chartist historian R. G. Gammage described the division of the movement into moral force and physical force Chartism.
Moral force Chartists advocated the use of peaceful methods to promote the Charter and change public opinion in their favour. They believed that in time they would persuade the people of the reasonableness of their demands.
Whereas physical force Chartists believed that the threat of violence, or for a minority, actual violence would pressure the Government into meeting their demands.
After the failure of the 1839 Petition, divisions within the Chartist leadership came to a fore.
Different leaders favoured different approaches to achieving the Charter, which Gammage saw as the opposing strategies of moral and physical force. Chartists themselves also used these terms.
Many moral force Chartists saw the vote as a ‘natural right’ but they also emphasised the need for the education and self-improvement of the working classes.
This was less about proving to others that they were responsible enough to have the vote, although there was an element of that, but more about being morally and intellectually ready to exercise their political rights.
This can be seen in the ‘New Moves’, the different forms of Chartism which appeared after Parliament’s rejection of the first Petition.
Knowledge Chartism is most closely associated with William Lovett. He stressed the importance of moral, political and intellectual education in Chartism: A New Organisation of the People, co-written with John Collins while they were in Warwick Gaol.
In this they set out plans for an education system for children and adults, the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.
Lovett saw the National Association as the most effective way of gaining The People’s Charter and to ‘realise all its advantages when obtained’, by educating the people to use their vote in the best interests of society.
It was not as successful as Lovett had hoped and only one National Association Hall was opened.
Teetotal Chartism emerged in the early 1840’s.The Temperance movement had been around for some time, but in 1840 there was a move to link Chartism with temperance.
Henry Vincent became a leading supporter of Teetotal Chartism. Vincent and four others issued an address urging Chartists to abstain from alcohol, stating ‘that the ignorance and the vices of the people are the chief impediments in the way of all political and social improvement’.
The campaign gained in popularity and several Chartist teetotal groups were founded. However the movement lasted less than a year.
Ernest Jones speaking in Manchester in 1850 said of teetotalism ‘The Charter don’t lie at the bottom of a glass of water’.
There was a strong link between Chartism and religion. Several Chartist Churches were established, particularly in Scotland where Christian Chartism developed in the early 1840’s.
Political sermons demonstrated that Chartism and democracy were consistent with the teachings of the Bible. Jesus Christ was frequently referred to as the ‘first Chartist’. The established Church was attacked for being corrupt and their opponents criticised for being unchristian.
Chartist George Binns told a meeting in Sunderland, ‘Eighteen hundred years ago the simple and sublime doctrine of equality was preached and taught and acted upon… now they saw nothing but unchristian selfishness’.
Feargus O’Connor strongly denounced these ‘New Moves’, believing they would divide the movement. He particularly attacked Lovett’s National Association which he saw as being in competition with the National Charter Association.
To Gammage, O’Connor represented physical force Chartism.
The physical force Chartists adopted a tactic which appeared to have been used with great success during the agitation for the 1832 Reform Act.
Encapsulated by the Chartist slogan ‘peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’ the threat of violence was used, particularly by the speakers at the monster meetings, as a means of intimidating the authorities.
The Chartist leadership did not actually want the people to rise up, but they did want those in power to think that it was a possibility if the Charter was not made the law of the land.
O’Connor often made use of menacing language during his speeches, making ambiguous threats if the Petition should be rejected. He told a meeting in Edinburgh that ‘if moral means fail in obtaining universal suffrage, get it or die in the attempt’.
Despite the violent rhetoric, the majority of Chartist meetings passed off peacefully.
O’Connor, like many Chartists, argued that they had the constitutional right to defend themselves if violence was used against them. He told a mass rally at Peep Green in 1839 that ‘I am quite ready to stand by the law…but should they employ force against us. I am repelling attack by attack’.
In reality the distinction between moral and physical force Chartists was not always so clear cut.
Gammage considered William Lovett to be a moral force Chartist, yet Lovett also believed the people had a right to defend themselves.
After his arrest in the wake of the Bull Ring Riots Lovett stated that ‘the people were justified in repelling such despotic and bloodthirsty power by any and every means at their disposal’.
The majority of Chartists, including O’Connor, did not want a revolution.
O’Connor realised the folly of an armed rebellion and most Chartists were committed to obtaining the Charter by legal means. The Newport Rising in November 1839 ended in failure and did not lead to a general uprising.
George Julian Harney, who was more militant than most Chartists, wrote to Frederick Engels ‘they applaud it at public meetings, but that is all. Notwithstanding all the talk in 1839 about ‘arming’, the people did not arm and they will not arm’.