initial C arlyle had once hoped that literature would constitute belief that would in turn constitute social order, but, having found that the search for belief endlessly defers closure, he began to shift his focus from literature to politics, from discover ing the author of a myth to discovering political authority. In shifting from novel to history, from the question of individual faith to the problem of social belief, he had steadily become more interested in problems of polity rather than of literature. In the 1820s, when he was neglecting history in favor of literature, he was indifferent to politics, and in the early 1830s he continued to hold himself apart from the political issues of the day, professing indifference to the elections that followed the Reform Bill in 1832, 1834, and 1835 (CL, 6:284, 7:197, 8:20). He did favor reform — after the first reform bill in 1831 was defeated he wondered whether it was his "duty" to speak out rather than "stand aloof " — but he had little faith in the kind of reform sought by the Whig establishment (TNB, 203; see CL, 6:52). Indeed, he regarded the onset of the recession in 1837 as a sign that the Reform Bill had failed. In The French Revolution, which he completed that year, he had adopted a more political orientation toward the problem of authority than he had in Sartor Resartus. For the first time, he became interested in the outcome of the elections, and by the early 1840s he was willing to acknowledge that his "nature was Political" (CL, 9: 2 7 7; NL, 1: 2 8 2).2

In the spring of 1838, when the Chartist movement began, Carlyle conceived the idea of writing a "Discourse on the Working Classes" (CL, 10: 15) — Convinced that it was his duty to "address ... English fellow-men on the condition of men in England," he continued for the next year to contemplate how to formulate his thoughts (CL, 10: 2 2 4, n. 14; see 11: 104, 218, 2 3 5) — While the Chartists were meeting in London to petition Parliament in the spring of 1839, he was lecturing in Portman Square on revolutions in modern Europe. Carlyle considered Chartism the latest rebirth of the revolution; the material ofChartism, he wrote, exists "in the hearts of all our working population, and would [92/93] right gladly body itself in any promising shape; but Chartism begins to seem unpromising. What to do with it? Yes, there is the question. Europe has been struggling to give some answer, very audibly since the year 1789" (CL, 11: 1 60-61). He was not interested in the Chartists' proposals for electoral reform, but he felt that Chartism manifested genuine social problems which could not be ignored. When, in August, Parliament rejected the Chartist petition, he felt compelled to demonstrate the importance of the movement. He immediately set to work, completing his long essay in three months.

Carlyle wanted to address this discourse to those who were most likely to provide a solution to England's problems, but he was uncertain who that would be. If English society was fragmented, as he claimed it was, he had to determine which segment of society to address. As did his fellow citizens, he tended to see the divisions in English society in terms of the existing parliamentary parties. In deciding who might best lead England and whom he should therefore address, he felt he must decide among the speculative radicals, the Whigs, and the Tories.

Although he had written for periodicals associated with all three parties, Carlyle was most intimately connected with the Whigs. He was a friend of Francis Jeffrey who, as editor of the Edinburgh Review, published his first major reviews, but he had always been considered something of a maverick by its Whig readership, and soon after Jeffrey passed the editorship on to Macvey Napier in 1829, Carlyle's relationship with the Edinburgh ended. At the same time, Carlyle was becoming increasingly suspicious of the utilitarian bent of Whig reform, and he had no sympathy for the Enlightenment ideals of Lord Melbourne, who became prime minister in 1834. His disenchantment became complete in the later 1830s, when the complacent Whig majority began to oppose further reform. Since his essay would make them his principal target and he had little hope of changing their policies, he made no attempt to address them or to seek a Whig vehicle for his thoughts. More likely vehicles for his essay on Chartism were the respectable Tory Quarterly Review-he was now avoiding the "fat glar [mud] of Fraser's Toryism" — and the "unfruitful rubbish-mound of Mill's Radicalism" (CL, 9:76).

For a time, Carlyle had some hope that the Whigs'allies, the specu lative radicals, might be converted into a more satisfactory reform party (CL, 5: 2 80; see 11: 2 2 2). Yet his feelings toward the radicals were even more sharply divided than his feelings about the Whigs. In the [93/94] early 1830s, he frequently identified himself, like Teufelsdröckh, as a radical, and as late as 1837 he insisted that he was still radical, only averse to Benthamite "Formulism" (CL, 6:154, 183, 9:338). It wasjust that there was no "right Radicalism" (CL, 9: 256). Comparing the radicals to the philosophe-inspired Girondins, he found in both "Formalism, hidebound Pedantry, superficiality, narrowness, barrenness" as well as the same "cold clean-washed patronising talk about 'the masses"' (CL, 9:69; see 187, 294; FR, 1:33). Unable to accept their insistence on rational utility as the basis for law and government, he hoped at first to convert them from speculative to "mystical" radicalism. For a time he even thought that he might found a "mystico-radical school" by becoming editor of the new radicaljournal (CL, 5:338, 6:72, 7:8o81, 218). But Mill and his friends were too committed to Benthamite principles to award the editorship to a man who detested the principle of utility, and Carlyle was not even given the opportunity to contribute to the London and Westminster Review until 1837 (Kaplan, 215). Nonetheless, because he shared with the radicals a desire for reform and because he still hoped to influence them, Carlyle approached Mill with his project of writing on Chartism when he first conceived it in 1838. But when Mill refused to listen to his criticisms of the radicals' project, Carlyle concluded that he could not write for the London and Westminster.3

Instead, he wrote to John Gibson Lockhart, proposing an article for the Quarterly Review. It appeared that the Tories were about to regain power, and Carlyle wanted to provide them with a political program. When he became dissatisfied with Whig policies, he began to reconsider his antipathy to the Tories, whom he had been happy to see turned out in 1832 (CL, 6:307). His desire for a hierarchical social order made the principle of the aristocracy appealing to him even though he had little respect for the existing peerage. Since his views on the working class differed "intensely from those of the speculating radicals, intensely from those of the Whigs," he now found that "the better class of the Conservatives were on the whole the persons to whom it were hopefullest and in many ways fittest to address [himself," that by "addressing" them, he could "awaken [them] to quite a new sense of their duties" (CL, 11: 104, 12: 11; see 117). Yet, with the exception of the romantic Tory Richard Monckton Milnes, Carlyle had no friends in the Tory party, and they were not about to be told what to do by a writer who had a long association with the [94/95] Whigs and radicals. When Lockhart turned down his proposal, he had no choice but to issue Chartism as a pamphlet at his own expense (see also Richardson).


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Last modified 26 October 2001