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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

VII. Politics, radicalism and national identity

41. To the Chartists of Scotland, 1839

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1Chartism constituted one of the most significant popular movements of the nineteenth century. The term refers to the campaign for political reform that took place during the decade 1838-1848 and that was based on the People’s Charter, a document issued by the London Working Men’s Association in June 1838. The Chartists demanded an extension of the franchise, an end to property qualifications, annual parliaments elected by secret ballots, a more equal distribution of seats and the payment of MPs. The Chartist movement in Scotland drew support both from the middle classes, who had felt betrayed by the Reform Act of 1832, and the working classes, who were more and more under pressure because of the industrial revolution. Chartism in Scotland was very popular–by the beginning of 1839 there were nearly a hundred local associations disseminated all over the country. Tensions existed from the start between moderates and extremists: some were in favour of ‘moral force’ tactics or constitutional and peaceful means, others favoured a more radical or militant approach. In Scotland most Chartists favoured the moral force approach. Three Scottish newspapers promoted the cause, the True Scotsman, the Scottish Patriot and the Scottish Chartist Circular. The Circular, first issued in September 1839, reached a weekly circulation of 22,000. From the political movement there grew cooperative societies, social clubs, Chartist schools and Chartist churches. The movement declined after the second petition of 1842 and was only briefly revived in 1848 with an important demonstration in Edinburgh, attended by 10,000 people.

2It cannot be denied that Chartism failed in the short term but it must be added that the movement’s political and cultural ideas had considerable influence. Many Chartist leaders were to become prominent members of the Scottish labour movement in the second part of the nineteenth century.

3The Scottish Patriot, August 3 1839.


BRETHREN, — It is essentially necessary, in our endeavours to advance the cause of liberty, that we have a distinct knowledge of our present position and a sure criterion for our guidance, in our future progress.

  • 9 Reference to the Mackenzie-Papineau rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada of 1837. Both uprisings we (...)

How are we situated at present? The laws which we are compelled to obey, are so ambiguous in their style, and tyranical in their tendency, that any attempt of the patriot or philanthropist, to advocate the regeneration of his country, and improve the social and political condition of his fellowmen, is punished under the sanction of law, as a crime of the greatest magnitude; any attempt of the industrious classes, the originators of wealth which they never enjoy, the producers of the plenty which they are denied, any attempt on their part, to advance themselves to that position in society, which the God of nature entitled them to possess, and which the principles of justice establish as their right, is deemed an act of treason, as an atrocious attempt as sedition and violence. In short, the laws, as they are now constituted, are no longer the source of justice, therefore they must be, and in reality are, an oppressive power in the hands of the despots, to annihilate all that remains of our once boasted liberties, to bind the industrious millions beneath the insolent and arrogant sway of the pampered few. Mark the horrors of the late continental war—the recent cold-blooded massacres—the executions and burnings in Canada9;—scenes so diabolical, that they would disgrace the most barbarous ages of antiquity. And are we, Brethren, to sit patiently and bend our necks to the yoke of those tyrants,—tyrants who have crushed even the semblance of liberty in Canada, who, for centuries, rode roughshod over unhappy impoverished Ireland, and who would now convert our own lovely country into one wide scene of ruin and desolation,—who, while they impiously pretend to adore the Almighty Giver of all good, yet stretch forth their hands, and arrogate to themselves the power of reaping the full harvest of the bounties of nature, which the God of nature intended for all, and granting, as a favour, a miserable pittance, to the producers of all they enjoy.

Brethren,—This state of thing cannot long continue, without bringing down the oppressors and the oppressed, in one common ruin, let us, therefore, call forth all our energies – all the noblest feelings of our nature – and stand forth the avowed, the unflinching, the determined advocates of justice and universal liberty.

Brethren,—We have carefully and calmly considered the most efficient course to be pursued in our onward march to freedom, and in the spirit of true fraternity, now lay our opinions before you, with the happy anticipation of a general adoption on your part, of our future mode of action.

Brethren,—The natural law of self-preservation teaches us, that we should defend ourselves, if attacked, and repel the aggressor; but the same law, combined with prudence, convinces us, that a combative position should never be assumed till we are enabled to make our resistance effectual—we cannot do so at present; therefore, let us call forth all our moral energies, to attain physical power, we deem essential to be obtained, to defend and uphold our rights when established, whether obtained by moral means or not. Do the British Aristocracy support their usurped power by moral means? No! they cannot—100,000 bayonets, organised and commanded by the minions of a despotic government, convey a pointed argument, that their sway is upheld by brute force alone, and we are well aware, from sad experience, that moral means alone can have no effect on a host of national robbers, who, for ages, have considered the working men of Britain, a horde of serfs, born to minister to their wants, and to cringe in abject servility, beneath their lordly masters, who have maintained their power in all ages by the most diabolical measures human ingenuity could invent. With such men and such experience of their actions before us, it is vain to argue our moral rights, as they must be dead to every feeling of morality, and insensible to every demand of justice and equity—with such men, composing what is called the government, it may be good policy to seek—but folly to expect any redress by petitioning; but which is, in our opinion, the only plan we can adopt at present— as it will give a safe, legal, and popular impetus to the movement; while we must, at the same time, strain every nerve to arouse the dormant feelings of our countrymen, and let them know what they are, and what they should be,– and, knowing that interest precedes principle with the majority of mankind, we shall endeavour to convince them, that it is their interest, as well as their duty, to join us in the present glorious movement,—As to the much-talked of moral and physical force principles— as distinct and different rules of action— we renounce both; believing that either, if acted on SEPARATELY can never obtain our object—and we view, with the most undisguised abhorrence and detestation—and denounce as hired traitors, the insidious villains who promulgate the slavish doctrine of PASSIVE OBEDIENCE—we consider CONDITIONAL OBEDIENCE—most compatible with reason, and shall act accordingly—but, come what may, let us act with the utmost caution, and do nothing rashly, and never for a moment, allow our just indignation to sway our judgements. […]

In conclusion, we consider that PETITIONS should be poured into parliament from every town, village, and hamlet in the kingdom, and a most strenuous and unceasing agitation kept up and extended to the most remote parts of the country. Besides a weekly correspondence should be opened with our English brethren, in order to establish a mutual sympathy, and unity of action.

For the members of the Dalkeith Radical Reform Association.



9 Reference to the Mackenzie-Papineau rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada of 1837. Both uprisings were eventually crushed.

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