Meeting in Support of the National Petition

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written January 1848


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, p. 473;
Written: on January 17 and 18, 1848;
First published: in La Réforme,January 19, 1848.
Collection(s): La Réforme (1843-1851)
Keywords : Chartism

The fourth meeting convened for the adoption of the National Petition by the Chartist Council was held in London last Tuesday Mr. Julian Harney presided. Messrs Clark and Dixon, of the Chartist central committee [of the National Charter Association], West, of Macclesfield, Skelton, Keen, and Fussell spoke in turn. But the orators of the evening were Messrs Harney and Jones. We give extracts of their speeches [quoted from the report: “The People’s Charter. — Important Public Meeting” published in The Northern Star]:

Mr. Ernest Jones. — We are assembled here to assist in passing a Coercion Bill against the government, and to produce such a “pressure from without”, as shall squeeze poor little Lord John Russell into something like a decent and statesman-like shape. We need this pressure, seeing that of all the parliaments we have had, the present parliament is assuredly the most hostile to working men. (A voice: No! no!) Someone says No. But I repeat that no class has ever proved as hostile to the working class as the middle class of England. (Hear, hear.) It has cast down aristocracy on the left, democracy on the right, and lives on the ruins of both. I do not wish to raise the aristocracy. No! Let the bruised serpent lie, for it would sting the hand that healed it.... Under feudalism, the people were fat slaves; under your rule, Sir defender of the middle class, they are lean slaves. (Loud cheers.)

Seeing then that we never had a more middle class, and therefore a more hostile parliament, it is time to organise resistance. And the people knows this. We too are increasing our army; the Old Guards of Chartism are in the field again. We too are enrolling our militia, the starving millions. We too are strengthening our “national defences”, courage in our hearts, discipline in our ranks, and unity in our action. (Applause.)

... But there are some gentlemen here who are not satisfied with this, and who say that millions of determined, well organised and well informed men are insufficient to obtain the Charter. These gentlemen tell the people that they must grow rich and then they will be free. But I tell you, you must become free and then you will be rich! (Applause.)

Become rich! how? In the workhouse or the gaol? Become rich in the deer forests of our nobles? Become rich on six shillings (8 francs) a week? Become rich in the churchyards of famished Ireland? (Applause.) Go tell it to the unemployed in Manchester — to the 20,000 destitute in Bradford. Go tell it to the Irish tenant, dying by the light of his burning cottage set on fire by his landlord. Go tell it to the beggar at the doors of Grosvenor Square! Go tell him once for all to stay a slave; but do not insult his misery by telling him to become rich! I know you will here point to our glorious Land Company. [1] to prove that the people can become rich.... But do you imagine that the government will let you go on?... This company has succeeded in rescuing 50,000 families from ruin; but rest assured, Parliament will prevent you from forming other companies, unless you obtain political power!... Let the Land Company members remember their forefathers, the yeomanry of England, who all owned the land. How did they lose it? Why, by taxation, which ruined them.

... Now then, gentlemen, make money, it will be wanted for the militia, for the increased army. Make money, it will be wanted for fresh palaces, for new bishops, for new royal babies! Make money, become middle class yourselves, and then, as you know, the middle class will no longer fear you! Make money — and this impossible task will be your only salvation. Not one word about our triumph at Nottingham, [O'Connor’s election to Parliament] of our organisation, of our national petition and our National Convention, now being prepared.

... No, my friends, above all we need the vote.... And you, men of London, you have it more in your power to obtain it than your brothers in the rest of England.... Our gallant men of the north are a long way off; their voices will not he heard, for there are hundreds of miles and plenty of barracks between those petitioners and Parliament. But you, men of London, can go in person and knock at the doors of St. Stephen’s, [2] knock till your privileged debtors give you back, trembling, what they have owed you for centuries! So knock, and go on knocking until justice has been done. (Thunderous applause.)

Mr. Julian Harney. — We are here to adopt a petition to Parliament.... But we are not asking for mercy or pity. Even were we so degraded as to do such a thing, we know that we have nothing to expect from the pity of our oppressors.... It was not by crying misericordia that our forefathers rescued themselves from the yoke of the traitor Charles 1. It was not by begging for mercy that the Americans broke their chains. It was not by crying misericordia that the French people overthrew the tyranny of feudalism, priestcraft and monarchy. (Great cheering.)

No, it would be vain for us to implore Capital for mercy. All our petitions would achieve nothing if they were not followed by other measures. First, we do not ask for pity, we ask for justice. We demand it, not only by the petition, but also by our agitation and our organisation, which is already beginning to terrify the parliamentary middle class. Continue to agitate, then, for when you cease, your petitions are only empty words.

Truly, the prize is worth the struggle. Behold this mighty empire, built up by the strong arms and cemented by the blood of your fathers; this empire of 160 million inhabitants, covering the sixth part of the habitable globe, this empire on which “the sun never sets”. [phrase used by contemporaries of king of Spain and German Emperor Charles V about his domains where the “sun never sets"] How is it that you, owners and conquerors of millions of miles of this fair earth, do not possess a foot of land? That millions of the heirs of this magnificent empire are dying of hunger, that thousands have no shelter from the wintry blast? The natural and manufactured riches of every clime are produced in the limits of the British Empire. Our manufactures are the wonder and envy of the whole world. For skill, industry and heroism our artisans, labourers and sailors are celebrated everywhere. All the elements of greatness and happiness abound, in spite of which you are crushed by misery. This empire is rightfully the property not of an idle, a scheming privileged few, but of the entire people. Is such a prize not worth struggling for? The Charter is the means by which you will win it. (Cheers.) When, therefore, the usurpers ask you to arm in defence of the country, refuse until you have your fair share of its advantages. If you armed yourselves, what would be your fate? Remember the poor soldier who was recently shot in India for insubordination, this is your share; compare it with the share of the Duke of Wellington, who got from the Treasury a sum of two and ii half million pounds (60 million francs): So much for the aristocrats.

Well, then! If the aristocracy fears the loss of its broad acres, let it fight for the protection of those acres! If the Church fears the confiscation of its immense revenues, let the parsons and bishops arm themselves! If the Jews and jobbers of ‘Change Alley'[3] fear the swamping of their funds, let them fight to protect their plunder! If the shopocracy fear the seizure of their tills and their ledgers let them arm and fight to protect their property! But you, men of the people, overworked and ill-paid sons of toil, houseless and shivering serfs of privilege, you who have neither lands, nor revenues, nor rent nor tithes, nor public funds, nor shares, nor profits, nor usury, nor votes, to whom the throne affords no protection and the law no security, fight for something else, or fight not at all! (Great cheering.) If you must fight, fight for yourselves. (Renewed cheering.) When lords and priests and bourgeois ask you to fight, let your answer be: No vote, no musket! Knaves and fools are now rushing into print with talk of national defence; there is only one defence, that of the Chartists: The land for the people, every man a home, every man a vote, and every man a musket! (Thunderous applause.)

  1. The reference is to the Chartist Land Cooperative Society founded on the initiative of O'Connor in 1845 (later the National Land Company, it lasted till 1848). The aim of the Society was to buy plots of land with the money collected and to lease them to worker shareholders on easy terms. Among the positive aspects of the Society’s activity were its petitions to Parliament and printed propaganda against the aristocracy’s monopoly on land. However, the idea of liberating the workers from exploitation, of reducing unemployment, etc., by returning them to the land proved utopian. The Society’s activity had no practical success. Subsequently, in the “Third International Review” written in autumn 1850 Marx and Engels stressed that the failure of the Land Society was inevitable. They emphasised at the same time that for a while the workers could mistake O'Connor’s project for a revolutionary measure only because objectively it was directed against big landownership and thus accorded with the tendency of bourgeois revolutions to break up the big landed estates; only the demand for nationalisation of land put forward somewhat later by the Chartists ‘ revolutionary wing (O'Brien, Ernest Jones and others) corresponded to the true interests of the working class (it was included into the Chartist programme of 1851). Engels thought of sending a detailed report on the activities of the Land Society to La Réforme as can be seen from the second part of the article; but apparently he never wrote it, though he reproduced the content of petitions adopted later by this Society in his report “Chartist Agitation” (see this volume, pp. 412-14).
  2. St. Stephen’s Chapel, where the House of Commons sat since 1547, was destroyed by fire in 1834
  3. Change Alley — a street in London. where the Board of South Sea Company (founded in the beginning of the 18th century) had its offices; a place where all kinds of money operations and speculative deals were conducted.