Chartists and the issue of moral and physical force

Dear Darren

Thank you for your query about the Chartists and the issue of moral and physical force and how it may have affected individual agitators on the ground.

Locating an answer to this particular issue can be partially uncovered in the development of historical investigation over the past twenty years or so. When I was an undergraduate at MMU, many moons ago, the dominant approach to the subject was a general and wide sweeping approach in which the focus often fell on leaders and their individual positions to violence or politics; to simplify, O’Connor was seen as pro physical necessity and Lovett against. However, these over simplifications have since been addressed. Essentially, physical force chartists believed in the right to possess arms to intimidate government, JR Stephens and Oastler fell into this characterisation before the 1839 chartist convention. But as Wearmouth noted long ago, many thought moral force supported by physical force would compel the government to respond. The problem was that the overall majority of workers had no intention of using arms and the diversity of aims in the chartist movement made effective cooperation in revolutionary acts impossible.

Since then, the ‘linguistic turn’ and more recently Katrina Navickas’ emphasis on local studies and individual interpretations, has provided us with the necessary historical analysis that your question requires, reflecting that a propsensity to arm or not effected individuals to a substantial varing degree, one could say individuals had responses ‘as long as the river is wide’. Malcolm Chase’s recent book Chartism focussed on various individuals within the chartist movement and gave a wide cross section of accounts of how chartism influenced people’s individual lives. Chase noted that, ‘chartism was a broad church, embracing schemers and careerists as well as idealists and romantics’. He also noted how some chartist branches, such as Burnley, formed specifically temperance chartist bodies. Roger Smalley adds to this diversity and recored in Dissent that Lancashire had thriving branches in Clitheroe and Sabden, which would gather on the lower slopes of Pendle and that the Sabden branch was most influenced by leaders of the Baptist church.

Therefore an answer, of sorts, lies in the complex miscellaneous forms of interaction that existed in many parts of the country from approx. 1938 to 1848. In Lancashire, we know several chartist branches existed and probably, like in other parts of the country, adhered to the view summed up in one of their slogans, ‘peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’. However, whether Henry Ainsworth of Woone Lane or Robert Birtwell of Whalley, who were cited as chartist members in the Burnley Express, were physical or moral force chartists, or more tellingly probably both as various times pending local circumstances and fear of arrest, is the essence of your question. Events, movements and organisations in history, rarely come neatly packaged and chartism was one of several defining moments that eventually would bring votes and hence power to the working man.

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