This book is the first in-depth study of the changing nature of moral politics within working-class Radicalism between 1820 and 1870. It highlights how Radicalism's attitudes to morality and everyday life shifted from a festive and libertarian culture to a more austere and ascetic politics. This has been done through study of the lives, activism and intellectual influences of a number of key leaders of working-class Radicalism. This culture emphasized moral improvement, temperance and frugality after the 1840s. Although the London Working Men's Association (LWMA) has often been regarded as elitist and reluctant to adopt a leadership position within organised Chartism, several key members were instrumental in forming the organisational basis for Chartism outside of London. These tours illustrate how not only Vincent but many Chartist activists achieved success by adopting the festive and populist ethos evident amongst London Radicals. In reality the advocacy of teetotalism and education were part of a popular ethical turn within the movement, and O'Connor's attempts to present the danger of a split movement was 'artificial'. The principles and strategies that William Lovett and Henry Vincent developed over the course of 1840 became accepted as a core aspect of Chartist political culture. By 1842, Ethical Radicalism became hegemonic within the movement after 1842 largely because of the constitutional, peaceful, and moral politics of electoral interventions. Working-class moral politics was a product of working- class Radicalism in the first half of the century rather than a post- Chartist imposition.
Chartism's moral politics and improvement culture were strategic interventions rather than dilutions of the movement's objectives and aspirations. Those Chartist leaders who turned to the politics of improvement did so to build the movement towards a position of Radical working-class hegemony. Indeed, by 1847 and before the rejuvenation of social-democratic Chartism the movement seemed to offer little direction beyond the immediate palliatives of prefigurative and improvement politics. Chartism's incorporation of the infidel, Owenite, and Radical traditions made it far more than simply a protest against 'Old Corruption'. Chartism is not part of a continuous Liberal tradition that has stretched into the twenty-first century and which limits its objectives to political reform and half-hearted attempts to relieve suffering. Chartists saw the Charter as the political starting point of widespread economic and moral reform, as a competitive and systemically corrupt society would be replaced with one founded upon wholly different principles.
This chapter outlines how the Land Plan came to incorporate Chartism's improvement culture, largely because of their shared basis in social Radicalism's critique of industrial capitalism, societal degradation, and urban living conditions. During the early 1840s there was a revival of interest in schemes to establish Radical communities upon the land. The electoral strategy deployed in 1841 provided activists with few concrete political achievements, but nevertheless was an effective way of mobilising Chartists, which became a core strategy of the decade. Tensions had been obvious from the trade disputes and strikes evident throughout the year, with a stone mason's strike in London prominent during the spring and eliciting support from the English Chartist Circular. The Land Plan therefore came into being as part of this broader interest which Thomas Frost reported appealed to 'Chartist-socialists' disillusioned by the failure of the National Petition and the strikes.
The growing list of prominent Chartist leaders arrested throughout 1839 convinced many that the government had set out to violently destroy the movement, further justifying the calls to arms. In the words of Malcolm Chase, 'very few Chartist prisoners renounced their political convictions, but most left prison intent on pursuing a different strategy to secure them'. One of the first prominent campaigns under the new approach was the Chartist intervention in the 1841 general election, with the objective of returning a number of Chartist or pro-Chartist MPs to Parliament. Like William Lovett, Henry Vincent posed teetotalism as a response to the repression of Chartism, the failure of open confrontation, and as a means of advancing the general progress of the intellect until Chartism was unassailable.
The legacy of Chartism's culture of moral improvement has been a major point of debate for several decades. While the existence of a labour aristocracy has been debunked it is also clear that working-class moral politics was a product of working-class Radicalism in the first half of the century rather than a post-Chartist imposition. For a brief period between 1848 and 1851 the Chartist movement possessed a culture evocative of earlier Radicalism, illustrated by the moralistic populism of G.W.M. Reynolds. Dietary reform and healthcare were major occupations of former Chartists in the 1850s, and the various sects of what commentators dubbed 'physical puritanism' after 1850 can be interpreted as non-political successors to Chartism. Chartist moral politics were therefore an important practical, ideological, and symbolic link between the 1840s and the era of the Reform League.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book charts the development of the movement against its intellectual culture, and with that the changing nature of its politicisation of everyday life. It focuses on the Radical print culture of the 1820s and 1830s to revise the notion that the early Chartists were austere and moralistic. The book considers the itinerant activism of Henry Vincent in the west of England between 1837 and 1839 as the central case study to establish how early Chartist activists integrated plebeian culture and everyday life into the movement. It looks at the impact of repression and imprisonment between 1839 and 1843 on Chartist leaders, and argues that this experience was the impetus for moral improvement to increasingly come to the forefront of the movement.
This chapter outlines how by 1842 it is clear that Chartists across the movement highly valued moral, physical, and mental improvement and saw it as a prerequisite for any meaningful social or political change. Teetotalism was initially Chartism's most clearly popular politicisation of healthcare and attempt to build a 'self-culture' and 'elevate a higher nature'. Beyond teetotalism, the most important and visible means of inculcating the sorts of behaviour required by the new strategy was a broader culture of self-care. It was designed to improve the body and mind through sobriety and moderation in all things and the judicious use of medicine. Chartism's medical material and commodity culture was a clear expression of a moral politics that sought to restore natural law in order to undermine the conditions in which tyranny flourished.
This chapter focuses on the tours to illustrate how not only Henry Vincent but many Chartist activists achieved success by adopting the festive and populist ethos evident amongst London Radicals in the 1830s and applying it to their agitation. The movement in the west of England can be characterised as close-knit and good-humoured, and was receptive to Vincent's deployment of London's Radical satirical tradition and his encouragement of female activism. Vincent argued that destitution, wages, low employment, and the suffering caused by the new Poor Laws were rooted in class exploitation and resolvable with political reform. In 1837 Vincent and John Cleave toured the north, founding Working Men's Associations and discovering a highly agitated working class. It is very clear that there were sexual aspects to the activism and itinerant tours of young, unmarried Chartists, and that men and women participated in romantic fraternisation.
This chapter outlines how early Chartism grew out of the traditions, which profoundly informed its intellectual and popular print cultures. Rather than elitist moralists as historians have held them, or demagogic sell-outs as William Thackeray contended, these men repackaged popular culture and the radical enlightenment to produce a moral populism for an understanding of the characteristics of Chartism. One of the environments from which this moral populism would emerge was the Freethought culture of the 1820s. Although politics was an important part of this plebeian intellectual culture, political reform was not seen as realistic throughout the 1820s, and energy was largely channelled into Freethought, debating societies, Owenism, and trade unionism. The irreverent style of sceptical philosophy and the strategic importance of undercutting the moral hegemony of the Anglican Church both informed a deeply heterodox and satirical culture surrounding the development of working-class Radicalism in the early 1830s.