Frederick Engels in La Réforme

Chartist Agitation

Source: MECW Volume 6, p. 412;
Written: at the end of December 1847;
First published: in La Réforme, December 30, 1847.

Since the opening of Parliament Chartist agitation has developed enormously. Petitions are being prepared, meetings held and Chartist agents are travelling everywhere. Besides the great National Petition for the People’s Charter which this time, it is hoped, will collect four million signatures, two other petitions for the Chartist Land Company have just been submitted to the people; the first, edited by O'Connor and published in The Northern Star this week, can be summarised as follows:

“To the Honourable, the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled, Gentlemen:

“We, the undersigned, members of the Chartist Land Company and all workmen, considering that excessive speculation in the products of our work, the unlimited competition — And the continual increase in the mechanical means of production have everywhere closed outlets for our work;

“that as the mechanical means of production increase, manual labour decreases and workers are sacked;

“that your recent decision about the temporary suspension of work on the railways will throw thousands of workers out of work, which will flood the labour market and will make the employers again reduce the wages already reduced so many times;

“that, nevertheless, we shall ask no more than to live from the products of our work;

“that we reject all poor rates as an insult, serving only to give the capitalists a reserve to throw at any moment on the labour market in order to reduce wages by means of competition between the workers themselves;

“that while manufacturing industry no longer knows how to employ the masses of proletarians which it has produced, agricultural industry still offers a vast field for our work, for it is sure that by the use of labour the yield of the land of our country can be at least quadrupled;

“that therefore we have formed a company for purchasing land whereby each may be enabled to earn a livelihood for himself and family without being at the expense of the parish or of individual charity, and without reducing the wages of other workers by competition.

“In this way we therefore pray you, gentlemen, to pass such a law which releases and affranchises the Land Company from paying the Stamp duties, as wen as the duty on bricks, timber and other building materials and to pass the Bill which will be placed before you to this end.”

The Bill has also been drafted by Feargus O'Connor, who is soon going to present it to Parliament.

The second petition demands the return to the people of the uncultivated land that is the property of the parishes. This land, which for thirty years has been sold in blocks to great landowners, ought, as the petition requests, to be divided into small fields to be leased or sold on easy terms of payment to the labourers of this land. This petition was adopted in London at a great meeting where Messrs Harney and Jones, editors of The Northern Star, supported it in the absence of O'Connor, who was kept in Parliament. It was also adopted at a large meeting in Norwich where Mr. Jones, who is one of the best speakers in England, again gave it his brilliant and irresistible support.

The National Petition has finally, been adopted by a large meeting in London. The principal speakers here were Messrs Keen, Schapper (German) and Harney. The address by the latter, above all, was marked by its democratic strength.

“What is our entire political and social system,” he said, “but a gigantic fraud, erected and maintained for the benefit of idlers and impostors.

“Behold the Church! The bishops and archbishops appropriate to themselves enormous salaries while leaving the hard-working clergy only a few pounds a year. Millions of pounds, in the shape of tithes, are taken annually from the people; these tithes were originally destined mainly for the upkeep of the churches and the support of the poor; now there are separate rates for that, and the Church ‘sacks’ all the tithes. I ask, is not such a Church an organised imposture? (Cheers.)

“Behold our House of Commons, representing not the common people, but the aristocracy and the middle class, and dooming six-sevenths of the adult males of this country to political slavery by denying them the right to vote. Is not this house a legalised imposture? (Loud cheers.)

“Behold those venerable peers who, whilst the wail of distress is heard through the land, can sit, evening after evening, waiting for the Coercion Bill coming up from the Commons. Will any one be good enough to show me the utility of the Hospital of Incurables — will any one attempt to defend this hereditary imposture? (Cheers.)

“Of course, the respect I entertain for that blessed specimen of the wisdom of our ancestors’ — the monarchy — forbids me to speak in other than the most loyal terms of so interesting a sovereign as Queen Victoria, who regularly, once a year, is delivered of a royal speech and a royal baby. (Laughter.) We have just had the speech, and I see an announcement that in March next we are to have the baby. Her most gracious Majesty expresses great concern for her people’s sufferings, admires their patience, and promises them another baby — and when it comes to babies, she has never yet promised in vain. (Bursts of laughter.) Then, there is Prince Albert, a celebrated hatmaker, a capital breeder of pigs, and a distinguished Field Marshal and who, for all his services, is paid thirty thousand pounds a year. No, citizens, the monarchy is no imposture.” (Laughter and applause.)

The speaker, having contrasted with this picture of official society the picture of the people’s sufferings, concluded by demanding the adoption of the National Petition for the Charter. The petition was adopted unanimously. Mr. Duncombe will place it on the table in the House of Commons, when it has toured the country. I shall send you the translation of it as soon as I have obtained a Copy.[218]