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Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh

The English freethinker and political agitator Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) successfully struggled to secure the right of nonbelievers to take seats in the House of Commons.

The son of a poor clerk, Charles Bradlaugh was born in London on Sept. 26, 1833. At 15 he abandoned Christianity for atheism. From 1850 to 1853 he was a private in the army in Ireland. Through these years he taught himself languages and law. By the end of the 1850s he had become the most powerful British propagandist for atheism, and in his public lectures he faced with courage and skill hostility and even physical abuse.

Bradlaugh became president of the London Secular Society in 1858. In 1860 he founded the periodical National Reformer, which continued as his vehicle until his death. In 1866 he organized the National Secular Society, which became the largest of such organizations in Britain. Through the 1860s he developed a large and devoted following among London workingmen. He was an early supporter of woman's suffrage, birth control, and republicanism. In 1874 Bradlaugh was joined by Mrs. Annie Besant, who became a vice president of the Secular Society.

Bradlaugh sought election to the House of Commons from Northampton; twice unsuccessful, he finally won in 1880. There then ensued a long controversy over his right to be seated. This dispute centered on the oath of office invoking God that all members were required to take. Bradlaugh offered to take this oath or to substitute an affirmation of allegiance for it. But the House refused him either option.

Over the next five years Bradlaugh was reelected four times but was not allowed to take his seat. Eight separate legal actions proceeded from the controversy. The constitutional issues raised were finally resolved by passage of Bradlaugh's Affirmation Bill in 1888. The House removed the records of his expulsions from its journals just before Bradlaugh's death on Jan. 30, 1891.

Bradlaugh was in no sense a true radical. His atheism and his political convictions were based on 18th-century individualism. He was suspicious of socialism and of government intervention even in hours of work. But he was a dedicated and honorable figure. G. J. Holyoake, his rival for Secularist leadership, called him "the greatest agitator, within the limits of the law, who appeared in my time among the working people."

Further Reading

Bradlaugh published The Autobiography of Mr. Bradlaugh: A Page of His Life in 1873. Anthologies of selections from Bradlaugh's voluminous writings are Humanity's Gain from Unbelief, and Other Selections (1929) and a centennial volume, Champion of Liberty: Charles Bradlaugh (1933). The standard biography is by his daughter, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, Charles Bradlaugh (2 vols., 1894). A briefer, lively account is in Warren S. Smith, The London Heretics, 1870-1914 (1967).

Additional Sources

Arnstein, Walter L., The Bradlaugh case: atheism, sex, and politics among the late Victorians, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983, 1965.

Royle, Edward., The Bradlaugh papers: letters, papers and printed items relating to the life of Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), arranged from the collection assembled by his daughter, Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner (1858-1935), and now in the possession of the National Secular Society … : a descriptive index, Wakefield: EP Microform, 1975. □

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Bradlaugh, Charles (1833-1891)

Bradlaugh, Charles (1833-1891)

Bradlaugh was an English Spiritualist, freethinker, and political agitator. Bradlaugh was born to a poor clerk in London on September 26, 1833. From 1850 to 1853 he served as an army private in Ireland. At the same time he taught himself languages and law. Becoming a prominent member of the Committee of the London Dialectical Society, he was appointed in 1869 to investigate the alleged phenomena of Spiritualism. He served on subcommittee No. 5, which held séances with the celebrated medium Daniel D. Home at which the phenomena were not all satisfactory. Bradlaugh therefore signed a minority report, containing a careful and critical treatment of the evidence. The Report on Spiritualism of the Committee of the London Dialectical Society, first published in London in 1871 and reissued in 1873, is something of a landmark in the development of enlightened interest in Spiritualism and psychical phenomena, and in standards of evidence.

Bradlaugh's association with the investigation of Spiritualist phenomena is noteworthy because of his reputation as a freethinker and atheist. His atheism and his political convictions were based on eighteenth century individualism. His associate in the cause of Freethought and birth control was Annie Besant, who later became the president of the Theosophical Society.

Born September 26, 1833, Bradlaugh early on became a disciple of Richard Carlile. By 1853 Bradlaugh was a lawyer's clerk and began to lecture and write in the cause of freethought under the name "Iconoclast." From 1860 onward he published the National Reformer, which the government prosecuted for alleged sedition and blasphemy. In 1874 Besant became coeditor of the paper. The Bristol publisher of Bradlaugh's Fruits of Philosophy (concerned with birth control) was prosecuted in 1876 for indecency, and the pamphlet was suppressed. However, Bradlaugh and Besant boldly republished it in the cause of liberty of thought and were both convicted and sentenced, although the indictment was ultimately quashed on a technicality.

From 1885 onward Besant moved away from Bradlaugh and his ideas into socialism and labor agitation and, as a pupil of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, into Theosophy.

Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament as an advanced radical in 1880 but was unseated after refusing to take the Parliamentary oath, because it invoked God. He was successively unseated and reelected, until he eventually took his seat in 1886 because of the passage of Bradlaugh's Affirmation Bill of 1888. Arrogant, dogmatic, but courageous in the cause of freedom of thought and speech, he was a great natural leader in the radical causes of his time. He died January 30, 1891.

Sources:

Autobiography of Mr. Bradlaugh: A Page of His Life. London: Watts, 1873.

Besant, Annie. Charles Bradlaugh: A Character Sketch. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1941.

Bonner, Hypatia Bradlaugh, and J. M. Robertson. Charles Bradlaugh: His Life and Work. London, 1898.

Chandrasekhar, Sripati. "A Dirty Filthy Book." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Manvell, Roger. The Trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. London: Elek/Pemberton, 1976.

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Bradlaugh, Charles

Bradlaugh, Charles (1833–91). Radical, atheist, and republican lecturer and journalist. Born in London, he rose from solicitor's clerk and part-time secularist lecturer to become one of the most formidable public speakers and unofficial legal advocates in Victorian Britain. He owned and largely edited the National Reformer from 1862, formed the National Secular Society in 1866, and launched the National Republican League in 1873. New heights of notoriety were achieved with the republication and prosecution of the ‘Knowlton Pamphlet’ with Annie Besant in 1877. In 1880 he was elected to Parliament for Northampton, but as an avowed atheist was not allowed to take the oath of allegiance. His attempt to secure entry to the Commons, not successful until 1886, made him the leader of democratic opinion in Britain. In Parliament, he took a special interest in Indian affairs and gained some credit for his resolute opposition to socialism.

Edward Royle

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"Bradlaugh, Charles." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Bradlaugh, Charles

Charles Bradlaugh (brăd´lô), 1833–91, British social reformer, a secularist. Editor of the free-thinking weekly National Reformer from 1860 and later associated with Annie Besant, he was an early advocate of woman's suffrage, birth control, free speech, national education, trade unionism, and other controversial causes. In 1880, Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament after several unsuccessful attempts. Rather than take a Bible oath to be sworn in as a member of Parliament, Bradlaugh, an atheist, demanded the right to take an affirmation. This action provoked a great deal of controversy, and it was not until 1886 that the matter was settled in his favor. His numerous works include Land for the People (1877), The True Story of My Parliamentary Struggle (1882), and Speeches (1890).

See W. L. Arnstein, The Bradlaugh Case (1965); D. Tribe, President Charles Bradlaugh, M. P. (1971).

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