[Thanks to Margaret Chase for sharing material from her John Collins, Chartist website with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on images to enlarge them.]
Although the Chartist movement had a number of splinter groups, it divided principally into two main camps — the Moral and Physical Force Chartists. For the most part, both agreed on the Chartist principles of reform, lectured on the inequalities of the political system, and demanded change, but they differed about the strategy required to obtain that reform. The Moral Force leaders, who were opposed to violent rhetoric and violent action, advocated reform by legal and constitutional means, which included peaceful rallies, organized conventions, publication of newspapers and pamphlets, and, most important, petitioning Parliament. They wanted to improve the education and moral standards of the working class.
In contrast, Physical Force Chartists used hostile language, encouraging violent behaviour, talking of arms, and making ultimatums against the government. Julian Harney once told an audience that they needed "a musket in one hand and a petition in the other." Their leaders were highly critical of the moderate Moral Force men, accusing them of being traitors, agents of the middle class, and watering down the Chartist message. Their aggressive speeches appealed to the more baser instincts of the working man ... it encouraged the pack mentality and left little room for opposition or other points of view. Violent talk and violent actions during the Chartist era rarely, if ever, won the day. The Newport Rising and the Birmingham Riots ended in blood, with many injuries, deaths, and imprisonments.
O'Brien, Vincent, Woodhouse, McDouall, Brown, Donaldson and many other Physical Force men, such as Fergus O'Connor and George Harney, not only made personal attacks on the Moral Force men, they made veiled and misleading threats to those who did not concur with them, including boycotting shopkeepers who did not contribute funds to the 1839 General Convention. They recommended people arm themselves and resist to the death a continuance of the Poor Law, even causing a rift on the home turf of moderate John Collins by telling a crowded Birmingham meeting to 'try their right arms' to win the fight. Such misleading language by Physical Force advocates was often preceded by get-out-clauses condemning the use of force. O'Connor in particular had a knack for speaking out of both sides of his mouth: in one breath saying the people had a right to arm, and in the next saying his friends never wanted the people to use them.
Moral Force Men & John Collins
Men like John Collins, William Lovett, and other moderates spoke to the masses using less inflammatory language, encouraging co-operation and unity of numbers. Collins practiced diplomacy in the face of warring factions in Birmingham, and even as Physical Force leaders rose to ascendancy in the Chartist Movement he continued to promote the movement using sound argument and non-violent means. Even so, Collins and Lovett were imprisoned for telling the truth about police brutality that sparked the Birmingham Riots in July 1839.
Lovett and Collins' book Chartism, a new organization of the people (written in Warwick Gaol) recommended education as a peaceful, positive inroad toward obtaining reform. With concerns about staying within the law and safety for the people, Collins and Arthur O'Neill declined to join the National Charter Association because they had doubts about its legality. Eventually Fergus O'Connor and his Northern Star (with its 50,000 copies a week of Physical Force propaganda) successfully took over the Movement and drowned out the voices of Moral Force leaders and their middle class and parliamentary supporters. On 10th April 1848 he borrowed Moral Force tactics and planned a large rally and procession at Kennington Common on the scale of the Great Glasgow and Midland Demonstrations to deliver a third National Petition to parliament. He exaggerated the size of the crowd and the number of signatures on the Petition, many of which were outright forgeries, such as the Queen Victoria's signature! The United Kingdom Parliament website says: "O'Connor claimed that the petition contained 5.75 million signatures. After three days, the Commons Committee for Public Petitions claimed to have counted all the signatures, and found just under 2 million."
The Moral Force leaders, with their code of conduct and strict adherence to legal means, said the third National Petition helped destroy the credibility of the Chartist Movement. Either way it heralded the demise of the movement and marked it with ridicule.
Last modified 24 April 2018