A Chartist Appeal to Lay Down Arms
A Chartist Appeal to Lay Down Arms
By: Peter Bussey
Source: Bussey, Peter. "A Chartist Appeal to Lay Down Arms" in Dorothy Thompson, ed. An Address to the Working Man of England. New York: Garland, 1986.
About the Author: Peter Bussey (d.1869), one of fifty-three delegates to the first Chartist convention in 1839, owned a pub in Bradford, England. He fled political persecution by emigrating to the United States in 1839, but returned home to die near Leeds.
In the early nineteenth century British citizens enjoyed more freedom than any other people in Europe. However, Britain was far from democratic. A constitutional monarchy with many limits on the powers of king and state, the country was nevertheless dominated by the aristocracy, who controlled the House of Lords as members and the House of Commons as the financiers or sponsors of the elected representatives. The vast majority of people could not vote. New industrial towns were not allowed to elect representatives to Parliament and, often lacking a town organization, could not govern themselves effectively.
Parliament enacted some reforms, repealing the law that banned Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants from government positions and universities. Increasingly, however, reform centered on extending suffrage and enfranchising the new industrial towns. In 1832 Commons passed the Reform Bill, which extended the ballot to 200,000 men—almost doubling the voting rolls. When the House of Lords refused to pass the bill, however, riots and strikes erupted in many cites. King William IV, fearing revolution, pressured the Lords into passing the legislation that gave the middle class the vote and made the House of Commons more representative.
But the people wanted more. The Chartist movement, named after the People's Charter drafted by William Lovett in 1838, sought votes for all men; equal electoral districts; abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament be property owners; payment for service in Parliament; annual general elections; and the secret ballot. Ironically, these eventually became law after the movement had collapsed.
An Address Fellow Countrymen, Innumerable pages have teemed from the press of this kingdom, against the brutalizing punishment of flogging in the British army, but I have not hitherto seen any production endeavouring to dissuade you from enlisting yourselves as soldiers into such army. This I hold to be a sufficient reason for my addressing you on this most important subject, especially the young men of this country, to whom I shall more particularly address myself in these few pages. You, young men, are the strength of the nation, morally and physically the whole of the wealth, power, and happiness of the people are in your hands, and it entirely depends on the manner in which that power is used, whether the people of this country live in the enjoyment of happiness or misery, of freedom or slavery. You are the producers of the nation's wealth, and have, by your skill and industry, raised her pre-eminently above that of any other kingdom in the world—you are also expected to defend her against the aggressions of any other power. Ought not you in return to be invested with the right of citizenship, which has hitherto been denied you? Nothing, in my opinion, could be more fair or reasonable; and let me tell you that the expectations of your fathers rest on you. It is in consequence of your exertions that those necessary alterations in the management of the national affairs of this country may be placed on just and equitable grounds, on which those great and immutable principles of Truth and Justice may serve as the polar star of all our actions; and the establishment of peace and goodwill amongst mankind, supersede that of war and discord; that universal harmony may prevail through every portion of the earth, and mankind meet as friends and has brothers, those of every clime and colour; then will the fell monster, Selfishness, receive its death blow, and sink into that oblivion it so justly merits, and mankind be free and happy. This can never be the case so long as you continue the wretched dupes of wealth and power, rushing on devastation, misery, and death, to decide their quarrels.
In the first place, I would have you to consider, previous to your enlistment into a standing army, that a soldier is a man hired to kill a fighting man; a butcher, an hired assassin, a legalized murderer, a destroyer of the peace, property, and lives of his fellow-man; not in the dark and gloomy hour of midnight, when nature hath drawn her sable curtain over the dreadful scene of carnage and blood, but in the broad glare of day, when the bright lumi-nary which invigorates the earth is shining in all its enlivening splendour, reflecting its million rays from the upraised instruments of death, manufactured for the express purpose of the better facilitating of human destruction. If we examine into the causes of these inhuman massacres, we shall find they have their origin in the pride, arrogance, and selfishness of a few individuals, who cover their infernal designs, by the following words:—National faith, national honour, and national safety, crowned with glorious war—with which their minions amuse and delude the people; when, at the same time, we have no more business with such war, then those flying men who are said to inhabit the moon. In order to prove this, we will examine into the origin of a few of those wars, wherein we have been particularly active. First, then, we will take the American war, previous to which we find one quarter of the known world subjected to the British Government. Was this because the native Americans found themselves insufficient to the task of governing, and in consequence of which had sent an invitation to this country for governors? No such thing. The ruling few in England, always ready to take that which they have no right to possess, slipping their fingers into everybody's pocket who comes within their reach, in this, as in many other cases, seized upon the land, in the name of (that aristocratic plaything) the King, and christened it part of the British colonies. To this the people were obliged to submit, and things went on pretty smoothly for some time, until the people of America began to imagine that they ought to have a word in the making of those laws by which they had to be governed. This could not be allowed. The poor Americans (in the eyes of aristocrats) were not born to govern the same as we breed them in this country; and to convince them of our superiority, we sent them a quantity of tea, with a tax upon it. This treatment justly aroused the indignation of the Yankees; a riot took place; the taxed tea was thrown overboard; the military interfered and endeavoured to put down the discontents, the ultimate result of which was, the people of America set up governors on their own account, and they have proved themselves worthy of the task. This is raised the spleen of hereditary wisdom, that they determined to chastise them for their insolence. This chastisement, leaving the shedding of the blood of tens of thousands of human beings out of the question, ended in the Independence of thirteen of the United States of America, and entailed a debt on the people of this country, amounting to one hundred and thirty-nine million pounds and upwards. And will any man, not a courtier, have the brazen audacity to assert that this war was necessary for the peace of welfare of England? I maintain that it was not only necessary, but in the highest degree mischievous, dreadful, and horrible, and will stand recorded as an eternal and infamous disgrace on the names of the men at that day in power.…
Every person who enlists into a standing army, becomes a part and parcel of that system by which the land that gave him birth is enslaved. A soldier not only engages to shoot at and destroy the inhabitants of other countries, but also those of his own, if commanded to do so by his drivers. He is, as I before stated, a machine which they can direct at pleasure; in proof of which I would ask— would it have been possible for the corruptions of Government to have been carried on in this kingdom to the extent they have, had not a standing army existed? Would Ireland, where thousands of poor creatures have died of starvation, and where thousands more have died by the bullet and the bayonet, have suffered, in such degree, if a standing army had never existed? Would the starvation Corn Laws have been disgracing the English Statute Book, if a standing army had never existed? Would that thing, called the Debt, in consequence of which the labour of millions of unborn ages are mortgaged, have been hung like a millstone round our necks, if a standing army had never existed? Would that poverty-punishing, humanity-disgracing, age-murdering Poor-law Amendment Act ever have been enforced, if a standing army had never existed? In a word, would any of the multi-farious acts which disgrace the Statute Book of the British Legislature and oppress the people, ever have been enacted, if a standing army had never existed? I answer—No. The parties well know that the existence and continuance of their system of misrule, depend on the strength and debasement of those who compose the army; but to come more particularly to the ground of objection:—Suppose that their fathers thought proper to change the constitution of the country, which they have a just right to do, when injured by the then existing state of things. The interested few immediately take the alarm, and assemble the army to keep down the people, whom they designate Rebels, which term, however, is decidedly wrong, as applied in this instance. The majority of a nation never can be rebels; their will ought always to be the acknowledged law of the country: the law based on any other principle can never be just; such being the case, it is only the few who are rebels. However, this few have the command of the army. Then see them assembled, and hear the drivers command the sons to slay their fathers, which, if they refuse to do, according to the existing laws, they must themselves suffer as traitors. Yes, the people must be kept down by force of arms, in that state of abject servitude the few may think proper, or the sons of Britain must kill their sires, mothers, brothers, sisters, or friends, who may be struggling for freedom; perhaps many would refuse thus to murder their most endearing friends. Others have become so far brutalized by the system, that they would rush upon the destruction of the inhabitants of their own country, as they would upon strangers. I have heard a soldier declare, that if ordered by his commanding officer to shoot his own father or mother, he would immediately do it, considering it to be his duty. And have we not known several instances which have occurred in this kingdom, where the military, when called upon, have deliberately fired upon the people? Witness the memorable 16th of August, at Manchester, where a murderous attack was made upon the multitude, peaceably assembled to petition the Parliament for a redress of their grievances. Thus the people are in continual fear of being cut, and hacked, and hewed, by these maddened and infuriated creatures.…
Thus you see, to a certain extent, the destruction of life and property, caused by the paltry differences of Kings and Aristocrats. Sometimes the difference was over a small tract of land, to which neither party had any right; at other times, as to what form of Government should exist in a nation, or who should be the Governor, neither of which cases concerned the people of England, any farther than the thirst for conquest and dominion, on the part of the Aristocracy, to enable them to pauperize their progeny on the people, by which they might wallow in the luxuriant productions of the earth, and look down with haughty scorn on the pale, emaciated, and ragged child of want, whose every sinew has been strained to produce the enjoyments in which he revels, and but for whose exertions he must have perished out of want.
Then, my friends, let not the tinseled gew-gaws of a corrupt and profligate government induce you to become the oppressors of your country, by enlisting into a standing army. You may depend upon it that many who have already swallowed the gilded bait, would give every thing they possess, could they throw off the gaudy trappings of the soldier, and exchange them for the clothing of the civilian. Yes, numbers know the value of liberty when it is too late. They have become thinking men, without the least shadow of an opportunity to change their situation, and are thus rendered the most miserable of human beings. It is all very well to see the recruiting parties strut, and swell, and swagger, through your streets, like some petty despot; but if you saw him on duty, under the daily inspection of his officers you would find the jackdaw stript of his borrowed plume, and trembling under the eagle-eyed glance of an officer.…
It might be asked—Would I disband the standing army, and leave the kingdom in a weak, unprotected, and defenseless state?
I answer—NO. Under a rational system of political equality, and internal power of defence would be organized, which would prove a thousand times more formidable to any power, who might be led to commit aggressions upon us, and less objectionable to the community. But more on this subject in a subsequent letter, which I intend to submit for your consideration. In the mean time, I desire of you to give this a fair and candid perusal, trusting that by so doing you will be convinced of the folly and madness of enlisting yourselves into the standing army of the Aristocracy of your country, so that in future should they, by their courtly intrigues, engender and foment quarrels with the aristocrats of other nations, let them decide their own differences in person, and at their own expense.
Yours in the Cause of Democracy,
By 1839 the Chartists had obtained over a million signatures in support of the People's Charter, and the document was presented to the House of Commons that year. When it was rejected by a vote of 235 to 46, many of the movement's leaders, who threatened to call a general strike, were arrested and jailed. When supporters marched on the prison at Newport, Monmouthshire, demanding their release, troops opened fire, killing twenty-four and wounding forty others. A second petition with three million signatures was rejected by Parliament in 1842, and a third in 1848, bringing an end to the movement. The working-class Chartist leadership turned instead to trade unionism, which held the power to bring immediate benefits to workers.
The People's Charter remained the democratic reform program for the rest of the nineteenth century. All of the Chartists' demands, except annual elections for members of Parliament, were eventually realized. When much of the rest of Europe burst into revolution in 1848, Britain remained quiet in part because British politicians had made timely enough reforms—although not enough to satisfy the working class completely. Despite the Chartists' defeat, their demands laid the foundation for British parliamentary practices, which came to be the model of liberal, progressive, and stable politics.
Jones, David J.V. Chartism and the Chartists. London: Allen Lane, 1975.
Thompson, Dorothy. The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution. London: Temple Smith, 1984.