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L’Amérique et le France

I. L’Amérique et l’Europe : le transit de la révolution

British Chartism, American republican institutions and constitutions1

Horst Rössler

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  • 1 Revised and extended version of a paper given to the 34th Annual Meeting of the "Deutsche Gesellsch (...)
  • 1 Chartist Circular 15 Aug 1840.

1"The constitution of the American States may be regarded as a philosophical experiment on a grand scale, in order to ascertain the possibility of mankind governing themselves… The experiment has been successful… Let our working men follow the train – let them imitate the example of the wise, the good, and the great men who laid the foundation of the American Republic"1.

  • 2 See E. P. THOMPSON, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), repr. Harmondsworth : Penguin, (...)

2Such was in 1840 the opinion of an anonymous writer in the Chartist Circular, the central organ of Scottish Chartism, in an article eulogising the founders of the North American Republic. These were not the sentiments of a lone pro-American individual – on the contrary : these sentiments were deeply embedded in the tradition of the radical reform movement in Great Britain since the end of the 18th century – a movement for Parliamentary Reform whose dynamic came from the lower classes (from artisans, workers and labourers), but which comprised manufacturers and other sections of the radical bourgeoisie as well2. With the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 which extended the franchise and restructured the electoral districts in favour of the new industrial centres, the industrial capitalists and their middle class supporters obtained a considerable share in political power alongside the traditional fractions of the ruling power bloc in Britain – merchant and finance capital as well as the landed aristocracy. But the Bill left the working classes disenfranchised, so it was the latter who therefore became the main protagonists in the struggle for a further democratic reform of the British political system. This struggle found its expression in the Chartist movement which dominated British working class politics between 1838 and 1852. Throughout this struggle many Chartists refered time and again in newspaper articles, pamphlets and on the platform, to the United States and her republican institutions as a political model worth imitating. For them the American Constitution guaranteed its citizens democratic rights and liberties – such as the liberty of the press, freedom of inquiry, religious freedom, the separation of church and state and the right of the people to bear arms (Amendment Art. 1,2) – for which the reform movement had had to struggle since the days of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution and most of which had not yet been secured in Great Britain.

  • 3 Charter 20 Oct 1839, in G. D. LILLIBRIDGE, Beacon of Freedom. The Impact of American Democracy upon (...)

3Furthermore the Federal Constitution guaranteed to every state in the Union a republican form of government (Art. 4, Sec. 4), which meant that no state was permitted to establish a monarchy or aristocracy. It was this in particular that attracted the British Chartists : the alleged democratic suffrage existing in many American states, especially the Northern States, was seen by the Chartists as a practised form of people’s sovereignty unique in the world and therefore worthy of imitation. The constitution of the State of New York of 1846, for example, provided for universal manhood suffrage, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts and annual elections of the house of assembly ; it decreed that the members of that house were paid and that there were no property qualifications – in short : the six points as embodied in the British People’s Charter seemed to be law in that republic. As early as 1839 the Charter, organ of the London artisan wing of the movement, had thought it proper to state, ignoring all the suffrage restrictions then in operation in various of the American states, that "the inhabitants of the United States are governed on the principle of Chartism"3 .

  • 4 See Eric J. HOBSBAWM, The Age of Revolution (1962), repr. London : Abacus, 1977 : "As late as the 1 (...)

4Though often couched in the rhetoric of "natural rights" and "human liberties", Chartism re-interpreted bourgeois democratic rights, as embodied, for example, in the constitutions of the United States, from the point of view of the actual needs of a movement of the working classes which embraced artisans and domestic outworkers, as well as labourers and factory workers. Chartism cannot therefore be seen as a movement of a fully developed industrial proletariat but rather as a complex and heterogeneous movement of the labouring population whose thinking and ideology was still decisively structured by the experience of artisans and groups of workers still living and struggling under the conditions of change from pre-industrial to modern capitalist society4. It was above all the diverse ideas of radical reformers like Thomas Paine and William Cobbett and, to a certain extent, of early socialists like Thomas Spence and Robert Owen which made up the main body of the theoretical framework of Chartist politics and ideology, ideas which influenced their image of America decisively.

  • 5 Northern Star 22 Aug 1840, in Dorothy Thompson, ed., The Early Chartists, London, MacMillan, 1971, (...)

5The Chartists’ view of the American Constitution can only be explained within the wider context of their view of the United States and its republican institutions in general, and within the context of the relationship between the struggle for democratic suffrage and social reform as defined by the Chartists themselves. What united all adherents of Chartism was the growing conviction that Universal Suffrage, as the most important political right to be fought for, was only "the stepping-stone to social improvement", as Peter Murray MacDouall, one of the leading national figures of the movement, characteristically put it5. The Chartists therefore saw in the struggle for the enactement of the People’s Charter merely an important step towards winning decisive influence on the exertion of state power. This influence was to be used as a political lever for the social transformation of contemporary Britain in the interest of the working classes.

  • 6 See Patricia HOLLIS, ed. Class and Conflict in 19th Century England 1815-1850,. London : and Boston (...)
  • 7 For the Chartist view of exploitation through taxation as inspired by Paine and Cobbett see for exa (...)

6Following the views of Paine and Cobbett, the majority of the Chartists in the late thirties and early forties attributed the misery of the British working people less to exploitation in the production process than to the existence of an undemocratic and corrupt government which, in their opinion, represented primarily the interests of finance capital and merchants, and a parasitic class of aristocratic landowners and other useless drones like priests, pensioners and placemen, who lived off taxes levied on working men6. For the Chartists only a radically reformed political system, based on Universal Suffrage as in the United States, would end this unjust system of taxation – which was seen as redistributing national wealth from the productive to the unproductive classes7 – and thus install a "cheap" and democratic government. In this view democratic political institutions per se seemed to guarantee the social welfare of the people. In 1841 MacDouall, looking at America, maintained, in an article significantly called "The Charter in Operation" :

  • 8 MacDouall’s Chartist and Republican Journal 14 Aug 1841 ; for a similar euphoric picture of the Ame (...)

7 "We hear of nothing but prosperity, see nothing but energy on all hands […] we exercise the enraptured senses amidst the shaded groves of plenty, the spreading city, towns and hamlets of peaceful industry, the marts of commerce, the resorts of science and refined knowledge. We have a gorgeous picture of improvement of energetic life, of the triumph of man’s art, perseverance, and labour." – and, referring to the condition of America’s workers, he boldly asserted that "her labourers are paid the full value of their work, and are able to protect themselves by the suffrage, they do not give up their earnings to the relentless tax gatherers of the crown, the church and the pension list", and "the suffrage protects the rights and the interests of the working man, and elevates him above the degrading drudgery of a slave"8. This romantic image of MacDouall’s, projecting his own hopes and desires of a New England after the enactment of the People’s Charter on the shores of the transatlantic New World, was shared by many Chartists at the time, who thus approached closely the widespread mythical popular belief of the ’Great American Republic’ as a ’land of promise’ ’flowing with milk and honey’.

  • 9 Northern Star  20 Apr 1844 ; see also Northern Star  2 May 1846.

8From around 1842 onwards the general view the Chartists held of the United States underwent a remarkable change. Newspaper reports of American bankruptcies and commercial ruin and of trade unions fighting wage reductions and unemployment as well as emigrants! letters depicting the hardships and miseries of those who had left their home for America, – all this cast dark shadows on the glorious image of the Transatlantic Republic. Despite the existence of republican institutions a growing social inequality seemed to prevail in American society and the contrasts between wealth and poverty seemed to assume European dimensions. For the Chartists, only one explanation offered itself : artisans and workers had not used their constitutional rights, had not really used the opportunities presented to them by democratic suffrage to push through and defend their interests – on the contrary, as the Northern Star, the most important national Organ of Chartism, deplored in 1844 : " the many have permitted the few to usurp and monopolise the soil ; and by bankcraft, lawyer-craft, and the thousand and one schemes of profit-craft, allowed the accumulation of immense hordes of wealth in the hands of a few Leviathan blood-suckers, to the degradation, misery, and social slavery of the myriad bees"9.

  • 10 See THOMPSON, Making of the English Working Class, p. 254.
  • 11 See Philip S. FONER, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 1, New York : Interna (...)
  • 12 Northern Star 22 June 1844.
  • 13 See National Reformer 14 & 28 Nov 1846.

9However, the confidence of the majority of the Chartists in the potential power of republican institutions had not been shattered. In the mid-forties the mainstream of Chartism concentrated its activities on the struggle against the land monopoly upheld by an undemocratic British government. The demand for agrarian reform had always played an important role in British radical politics and had been a feature of early artisan radicalism nourished by Paine’s Agrarian Justice and by Spence’s more outspoken socialist critique of landlordism10. The Chartist Land Plan must be seen in this tradition. It was initiated by Feargus O’Connor, the movement’s most popular leader, and aimed at settling as many workers and artisans as possible on the soil, thus making them independent from ’grinding capitalist exploitation’. No wonder, then, that in this situation the Chartists welcomed the formation of the American Free Soil movement led by G. H. Evans and the Irish Ex-Chartist Thomas Ainge Devyr11, which pursued aims similar to that of the Chartist Land Society. In the American National Reformers the Chartists saw a movement of the lower classes coming into being which alone seemed capable of doing away with widespread social inequality in the "PATTERN REPUBLIC". In the opinion of the Chartists, the American National Reformers, in contrast to their British brethren, had every political opportunity to realise their aims. According to the Northern Star it was now up to the "NATIONAL REFORMERS OF AMERICA", to prove to despairing humanity that the equality of man is NOT a lie! and that Republican Institutions are the natural safeguards of human happiness"12. And Bronterre O’Brien, who had come to be called the schoolmaster of Chartism at the end of the 1830s, called on the American Reformers to "stand firm by the American Constitution as it is, allowing no change whatever to be introduced, unless it should be to make the constitution more democratic than it is". New Constitution Measures like the Prohibition of State Debts or the Direct Taxation on Property and others as proposed by the National Reformers found the wholehearted support of O’Brien, but as Bronterre pointed out, it was now the task of the Reformers in America to think of the existing constitutional rights and liberties as important weapons to be used by the labouring classes of America in their struggle to accomplish agrarian reform and social change13.

  • 14 See National Reformer 10 Oct 1846.
  • 15 Thomas PAINE, Rights of Man (1191/92), repr. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1971, p. 220.
  • 16 See Northern Star 7 Nov 1846.

10Although supporting the struggle of the American National Reformers, O’Brien, in contrast to O’Connor, was critical of their politics insofar as they conceived of land settlement only on the basis of private property (as did O’Connor’s Land Scheme) whereas Bronterre was in favour of the nationalisation of the land14. But the influence of socialist ideas in Chartism had always been rather meagre, at least up to 1848. Thus the majority of the Chartists were not put off by the fact that the federal as well as the state constitutions in America declared property to be inviolable. This was due to the influence of artisan ideology in Chartism, an ideology which does not reject private property but rather favours small property, honestly aquired, for the great mass of the people. The Chartists believed, with Paine, that the mere existence of a democratic and cheap government guaranteed that every man would be able "to pursue his occupation and to enjoy the fruits of his labour, and the produce of his property in peace and safety"15, as Paine had put it. The fact that social inequality seemed to be growing in America despite the existence of republican institutions was not attributed to the institution of private property but, as has been shown, to the failure of the people to use their constitutional rights and liberties16.

  • 17 See Northern Star 20 Apr 1844 ; 7 Mar 1846 ; 7 Dec 1850 : "all men are by nature free and equal ! I (...)

11It was the early socialists who continually preached that there could be no real social happiness for the mass of the people under a system of private property and competition. The Owenite Socialists never shared the Chartists’ enthusiasm for American republican institutions as potential ’safeguards of human happiness’. They did not only condemn black slavery – an attitude they had in common with all sections of Chartism17 – but were highly critical of American society in general. From the 1830s on they consistently asserted that republican institutions alone did not necessarily lead to humane living and working conditions for the workers.

  • 18 New Moral World 6 May 1843 ; 2 Jan 1836 ; see also New Moral World 29 Sept 1838 ; 4 & 11 June 1842.

12"In the formation of the constitution of the United States, the energies of the most gifted, disinterested and enlightened men who have appeared in the ranks of politicians were employed" stated the NEW MORAL WOLRD, organ of the Owenites, in 1843. Nevertheless, the same paper had already claimed in 1836, America "may have the cheapest, and perhaps the best form of government that the world has ever seen ; […] the people may have universal suffrage, vote by ballot, and annual parliaments ; […] there may be no tithes, no established religion, no national debt, no standing army, and but few taxes ; and yet […] the great mass of her people, the great bulk of her wealth-producers, may be little, if at all, better off than those of our own country, […] it never was true, even in democratic America, that all men are born free and equal ; nor can it be true in any country where private property exists"18.

13Attributing social inequality and the poverty of the workers to competition and the institution of private property, social happiness, according to the Owenites, could alone be realised by replacing the existing state of things with a society based on the co-operative principles of Robert Owen’s socialism.

  • 19 Reynolds’ Political Instructor 13 Apr 1850.
  • 20 London Mercury 7 May 1837 ; see also National Reformer 31 Oct 1846 ; Poor Man’s Guardian 1 Nov ; 20 (...)

14In Chartism, too, there was a tendency which was more critical of the "model republic" U.S. than most of the mainstream Chartists. The most famous representative of this tendency was the aforementioned O’Brien, ardent Chartist as well as admirer of Owen and Robespierre. Like other Chartists, he valued highly the fact that there were’ no crowned heads, no national debt, no state church, no titled aristocracy’ in America, that there was ’universal suffrage’ and that ’taxation was comparatively low’. "These and other privileges – the result of her political constitution – America fully enjoys. No European state can compare with her in these respects"19. At the same time, in his critique of contemporary American society, which went back to the middle thirties, Bronterre laid greater stress on the relative use of republican institutions and put greater emphasis on the need for social change than the majority of the Chartists. In his opinion a social revolution in the United States was necessary to complete the political achievements of 1776. As early as 1837 he had characterised the American Civil War as follows : "The American Revolution of 1775, is the most perfect revolution of its kind that has hitherto been effected in the world […] taking the states collectively the franchise is sufficiently extended to entitle the government to be called a Democratic Republic […] however the American people are fast sinking into poverty and slavery." For O’Brien the real cause of this downward progress was that 11775 did not change the system of aquiring and transmitting property. It was […] a mere political revolution. In leaving the institution of property where it found it, it left all the germs of social evil to ripen in the womb of time, and these germs remaining, it was of little consequence what the particular form of government was, or might be." Attributing social inequality to "BAD PROPERTY INSTITUTIONS"20, O’Brien came to a judgment similar to that of the Owenites.

  • 21 Notes to the People vol. 1, 1851, 276.
  • 22 Friend of the People, 26 July 1851 ; Red Republican 6 July 1850.

15Other prominent Chartist leaders such as Julian Harney or Ernest Hones held critical views on America and the relevance of her constitutional rights for the social well-being of her labouring people, views very similar to those of O’Brien. But these were the views of a left-wing minority which only gained some influence in Chartism after 1848, when the movement had already lost its mass basis among the British working classes and no longer represented an important force within British society. "Republican Institutions are no safeguard against social slavery", Jones emphatically asserted in 1851, and, referring to the capitalist development of the United States of America, he maintained : "Wages-slavery as vile exists there as in Europe"21 ; and Harney plainly remarked : "we hold the United States commonwealth to be anything but a model republic." But even to these most radical Chartists one thing was clear : "with all their faults, the institutions of the free States, contrast most gloriously with the bloody and brutal systems of tyranny which yet prevail in the several countries of the old world", as Harney put it in the aftermath of the European Revolutions of 1848 in his journal The Red Republican in 185022.

  • 23 See Henry PELLING, America and the British Left, London, 1956, pp. 24, 56-65.

16 The traditional radical image of America with its glorification of republican institutions and constitutional rights and its neglect of the problems arising out of capitalist property relations and wages-slavery survived the demise of Chartism in Britain : up to the Civil War and after, many leaders of the new model trade unions and other working-class politicians had nothing but enthusiasm for American institutions (an enthusiasm they shared, by the way, with bourgeois Free Trade Radicals like John Bright and Richard Cobden), It took some more years before organisations like the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League or the Fabian Society again warned in the 1880s, of the illusion that political democracy in the United States was no guarantor for the social welfare of the workers23.

Notes

1 Chartist Circular 15 Aug 1840.

2 See E. P. THOMPSON, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), repr. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1974, pp. 668, 200.

3 Charter 20 Oct 1839, in G. D. LILLIBRIDGE, Beacon of Freedom. The Impact of American Democracy upon Great Britain 1830-1870, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955, p. 49 ; see also Northern Star 17 Jan 1846.
Lillibridge’s is the classical study on the influence of the ’America model’ on Chartism. However, I neither share his underestimation of the substantial Chartist criticism of Negro slavery and the condition of the working classes in North America in the mid – and late forties nor do I agree with the implication in his study that Chartism was an offspring of the Amercian democratic experience ("From the incubator to maturity, the Chartist movement was reared on the American destiny," 41). Chartism is, indeed, deeply rooted in the tradition and experience of British lower class radicalism which can be traced back to the ideas and struggles of the radical left and religious sects of the 17th century English Revolution. The impact of the ’America model’ cannot be denied but it would be wrong to overrate its influence on British working class politics.
For a recent and very valuable account of Chartism see Dorothy THOMPSON, The Chartists, London : Temple Smith, 1984.

4 See Eric J. HOBSBAWM, The Age of Revolution (1962), repr. London : Abacus, 1977 : "As late as the 1830s cotton was the only British industry in which the factory… predominated", 53 ; the extent of the factory system is described in R. SAMUEL "The Workshop of the World : Steam Power and Hand Technology in mid-Victorian Britain1, History Workshop Journal, 3 (1977), 6-72.

5 Northern Star 22 Aug 1840, in Dorothy Thompson, ed., The Early Chartists, London, MacMillan, 1971, p. 161.

6 See Patricia HOLLIS, ed. Class and Conflict in 19th Century England 1815-1850,. London : and Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 3.

7 For the Chartist view of exploitation through taxation as inspired by Paine and Cobbett see for example Monthly Liberator 13 Apr 1839 : "they [= governing classes] have the power to tax everything we can feel, taste, touch, or see ; […] more than one-half of our earnings are extorted from us by taxes upon our houses, corn, grain, meal", etc. ; the Northern Liberator of 18 Oct 1839 states that the manner taxation operates "a portion of that which should go to feed, clothe, or shelter him [= labouring man] and his family" is taken away.

8 MacDouall’s Chartist and Republican Journal 14 Aug 1841 ; for a similar euphoric picture of the American Republic see Chartist Circular  24 Oct 1840.

9 Northern Star  20 Apr 1844 ; see also Northern Star  2 May 1846.

10 See THOMPSON, Making of the English Working Class, p. 254.

11 See Philip S. FONER, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 1, New York : International Publishers, 1972, pp. 183-188.

12 Northern Star 22 June 1844.

13 See National Reformer 14 & 28 Nov 1846.

14 See National Reformer 10 Oct 1846.

15 Thomas PAINE, Rights of Man (1191/92), repr. Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1971, p. 220.

16 See Northern Star 7 Nov 1846.

17 See Northern Star 20 Apr 1844 ; 7 Mar 1846 ; 7 Dec 1850 : "all men are by nature free and equal ! It is true that the American Constitution declares the same truth, but the Americans have chosen to read it with an interpretation of their own. They affirm, ’that all men are by nature free and equal, except niggers.’"

18 New Moral World 6 May 1843 ; 2 Jan 1836 ; see also New Moral World 29 Sept 1838 ; 4 & 11 June 1842.

19 Reynolds’ Political Instructor 13 Apr 1850.

20 London Mercury 7 May 1837 ; see also National Reformer 31 Oct 1846 ; Poor Man’s Guardian 1 Nov ; 20 & 27 Dec 1834.

21 Notes to the People vol. 1, 1851, 276.

22 Friend of the People, 26 July 1851 ; Red Republican 6 July 1850.

23 See Henry PELLING, America and the British Left, London, 1956, pp. 24, 56-65.

Notes de fin

1 Revised and extended version of a paper given to the 34th Annual Meeting of the "Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Amerikastudien", Bremen, 9-11 June 1987, "The Living Constitution".

Auteur

University of Bremen

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1991

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