‘Freeman stand, or freeman die’: liberty and slavery
in Ballads and songs of Peterloo
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The words ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’ feature in forty-three poems in this collection, indicative of the centrality of this theme to the radical discourse of the day. In an era of almost unprecedented repression and the curtailment of rights, working people wished to rid themselves of their chains and reclaim their lost liberties, as a way of asserting English nationalism in the face of a ‘foreign’ monarchy.

The twelve poems and songs in this section celebrate both the forthcoming return of liberty, presented as a goddess, and Henry Hunt as liberty’s human representative. The restoration of liberty as an end to slavery is a common trope within English radical discourse and poems often depict the radical patriot endeavouring to rescue his country from an imposed and unnatural tyranny and return it to its true state of liberty; however, this trope predates the era of revolution when such rhetoric was common currency and this section explores the prevalence of the theme of liberty in the mid-eighteenth century and the subsequent influence of William Collins and Thomas Gray on the poems in this collection. The introduction also seeks to explain the lack of references to the transatlantic slave trade in these poems at a time when the issue of rights was at the fore. It includes poems written by Samuel Bamford and the Spencean Robert Wedderburn.


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