Republicanism in Britain: A Brief History Parts 1 and 2

1.  Introduction

It is ironic that the islands which have produced a disproportionately large number of republican theorists have retained a monarchical system for the majority of its inhabitants.  Since the middle years of the last millennium where our story starts, the fortunes of republicans and republicanism can be seen to ebb and flow on centuries long waves. 

The two great peaks of republicanism which occurred during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were separated by periods where the ideas were held in obeisance. But, as I will show,  this is far from saying there was no republican activity during these times. Using history as a predictor of the future is fraught with danger but as the twentieth century fitted into the pattern is is tempting to hope that our present century will witness a new peak.

The Many Facets of Republicanism

Superficially, the history of Republicanism appears to be no more than a straightforward chronicle of anti monarchism in Britain. But such a view overlooks the rich variety of republican thought, some of it only tangentially affecting monarchy.  

Indeed, at times writers who considered themselves republicans were quite happy with a monarchy; though one which was tightly constrained, knew its responsibilities and could be held to account. Some of these ideas approach the concepts embodied in the modern office of President of the United States! Likewise it would be impossible to consider the development of British republicanism without reference to wider social, economic and even global events. 

Of enormous influence to early British republicans were the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers Aristotle, Demosthenes and Cicero along with historians Livy, Tacitus and Polybius. Similarly, many Reformation English and Scottish republicans looked to more recent ideas flowing from fifteenth and sixteenth century Florence, with Machiavelli proving to be a particularly influential figure.

From the earliest times it is clear that Republicanism is not a single tightly defined concept but rather a loose overlapping collection of ideas and concepts on the nature of citizenship and the exercise of political power. It can also be regarded as a way of thinking or even a vocabulary articulating an approach to political and constitutional issues. At its core is a concern for freedom both for the individual and the state as a whole. 

Of importance is the fact that republicanism is most effective and successful when combined with a separate though related cause. In the middle of the seventeenth century this was a lack of religious freedom. Later in the first half of the nineteenth century the driver was economic oppression caused by the rapid growth of unregulated capitalism.

During much of this period the British Isles consisted of three interlinked kingdoms. In fact a United Kingdom of all the islands existed for a very short time in historical terms.  The nature of republicanism varied across time and across these countries but in only one, on the island of Ireland has the idea been thus far successful. 

Finally, many of the ideas and concepts behind republicanism have remained largely dormant for almost two centuries, being displaced by liberalism and libertarianism as the  dominant concepts of freedom. Recovering these buried concepts from past republican theorists demonstrates the great value we have lost in such a concept.t

2.  16th Century Reformation Republicans

Building on the past

It is very rare that ideas and concepts spontaneously arise with no antecedents. So it was with sixteenth century political theory. In England the fifteenth century lawyer Sir John Fortesque argued that monarchical absolutism was a problem for continental Europe rather than England.

Around 1470 he published De Laudibus Legum Anglie which was translated in 1567 by Robert Mulcaster as A Learned Commendation of the Politique Lawes of England. Fortesque followed the Greek philosopher Aristotle in viewing tyranny to br a monarch’s abuse of the property of their subjects with the desire to amass wealth solely for their own benefit at the expense of the people. Similarly, he articulated Thomas Aquinas in declaring:

…the King is gyen for the kingdome, and not the kingdome for the King.

Another Greek thinker, the historian Polybius, was a vitally important source of ideas. He was widely read in late sixteenth century England, influencing the debate by drawing attention to the written constitution of ancient Sparta which guaranteed limits on the power of monarchy. The key institution of the state was the senate which operated effectively because its members ‘were chosen on grounds of merit, and could be relied upon at all times to unanimously take the side of justice. 

European humanist works such as Laurentius Grimaldus’s The Counsellor, anonymously translated into English in 1599, endorsed Polybius’s praise of the Roman Republic. Grimaldus argued that the mixed state of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy directly resembled the parts of a man’s mind, making it a natural form of political structure.

Ascending Versus Descending views of Power

Polybius’s works supported an ‘ascending’ view of the balance of power between Crown and Parliament which placed emphasis on the monarch being tied by the laws made in parliament. The rival ‘descending’ view subjugated the authority of representative chambers to the prerogative  of the monarch, reducing them to mere advisory bodies. 

These two interpretations lay at the heart of political debate of sixteenth century England and recur constantly. But even the ascending view was open to many interpretations with the result that the nature of republican arguments during this time were complex and frequently contradictory. 

This dichotomy is clearly visible in Richard Bacon’s 1594 Solon his Foliie, or. Politique Discourse touching the reformation of common-weales conquerred, declined or corrupted. Though dedicated to Elizabeth I it makes extensive reference to both Livy and Machiavelli. 

Heavily influenced by the latter, Bacon develops his commonwealth idea by citing examples from ancient Sparta and Athens, the 1579-83 Ulster Desmond Rebellion together with Machiavelli’s own Renaissance Florence. As the court of Elizabeth I sought to protect its prerogative and prevent discussion of the succession during the 1590s, such political treatises were naturally viewed as dangerous.

The Ancient Roman Republic provided a wide ranging and compelling model for sixteenth century political theorists. In his 1568 translation of the first forty books of Polybius’s Universal History, Christopher Warton includes a personal section clearly influenced by Somnium Scipionius., This was an account of the efforts of Scipio Africanus. Scipio, the most talented general of the Third Punic War (149-136BCE), in defending Rome against Hannibal. This raises him to the status of a republican hero.

The Idea of a Commonwealth

A major contribution to English political development was made by Sir Thomas Smith in his De Republican Anglorum; A Discourse on the Commonwealth of England published in 1583. Smith declared:

A Common Wealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenauntes among themselves, for the conservation of themselves as well as in peace as in warre.

Later in the work, Smith articulates one of the fundamental principles of republican philosophy:

And if one man had as some of the old Romanes had (if it be true that is written) v. thousands or x. thousands bondsmen whom he ruled well and though they dwelled all in one citie or were distributed into diverse villages, yet that were no commonwealth; for the bondsman hath no communion with his master, for the wealth of the Lord is onely sought for, and not the profit of the slave or bondsman.

Surprisingly, despite these clear republican statements, Smith is not necessarily an anti-monarchist. Once again it depends on the regal powers being strictly circumscribed by a parliament or other representative body. He does, however, take pains to include even the lowliest sections of society, though as a means of emphasising that the English commonwealth is a collective project.

Drawing a Distinction Between the Office and Person of Monarch

A major impetus to republican theory in England was the heirless state of Elizabeth I. Her chief secretary William Cecil wrote a document which aimed to ‘tackle the potential problem of England without a monarch in December 1592, after Elizabeth suffered a bout of serious illness. It contained a clause which enabled parliament to establish a ‘conciliar interregnum’ and then nominate a successor. This established the all-important distinction between the two bodies of the monarch, the office and the person, in order to preserve the realm in a stable state. This distinction was to prove crucial during the 17th Century.

Cecil’s use of the term interregnum illustrates that following a short period of Parliamentary control, he fully intended that a new monarch should be crowned. This shows that politicians who used republican arguments were often just as repelled  by the thought of rebellion as more conservative thinkers. Furthermore it is important to note that republican ideas could be used to preserve as well as attack the monarchy.

Scotland in the Vanguard of Republicanism

Last but not least, a fertile breeding ground for republicanism in the British Isles during the 16th Century Reformation period was Scotland.  One of the most influential and original political thinkers. George Buchanan wrote three major works of political theory, De Jure Regni Apud Scotos (1579), Any detectioun of the dunges of Marie Queene of Scots (1571) and Rarum Scoticarum Historia (1582). All were familiar to people south of the border.

Remembering William Murray: ‘Slavery… it’s so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it’

On 20th March 1793 William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield died. It is not often that I blog in support of the memory of aristocrats and bluebloods, but there are exceptions. Mansfield is one of them.

Born in 1705 he was one of the most powerful legal figures in eighteenth century Britain, at various times holding the post of Solicitor General, Chief Justice and Attorney General. His judgements echoed the Age of Enlightenment and were instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. One of Mansfield’s most famous cases was Somerset’s Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law (Parliamentary legislation) and therefore was not binding law. While not actually abolishing slavery in the British Empire it was a vital step in that direction. Mansfield stated:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.

As a British republican I particularly appreciate the following quote from a 1769 case: Rex v. Wilkes

The last end that can happen to any man, never comes too soon, if he falls in support of the law and liberty of his country: for liberty is synonymous to law and government.

The nation of laws is a fundamental pillar of both European Republicanism and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. An example of Mansfield’s rationalist approach can be found in his Letters to the Right Honorable Lord Mansfield (1773)

As mathematical and absolute certainty is seldom to be attained in human affairs, reason and public utility require that judges and all mankind in forming their opinions of the truth of facts should be regulated by the superior number of the probabilities on the one side or the other whether the amount of these probabilities be expressed in words and arguments or by figures and numbers.

No person is wholly good and Mansfield was no exception, numbering opposition to press freedom, nepotism and support for British Government antagonism towards the American colonies on the opposite side of the balance. But his bravery in ruling against enslavement in Britain must surely warrant that he is remembered by history.

The Last Night of the Proms; A Dash of Ancient Feet, Religious Dissent and Republicanism

Opinion over the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms becomes ever more polarised. Increasingly, you either revel the naive jingoism of the second half of the event or it repels you. But I wonder how many of those lauding it as a ‘major cultural treasure’ really know the background of one of its centerpieces, Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem.

The lyrics are from a poem by William Blake, one of the most controversial artists in British history.   He was a religious dissenter and no lover of the established Church of England.  Like many dissenters he held radical political views and was a republican.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the appalling treatment of Eighteenth and Nineteenth religious dissenters such as the scientist Joseph Priestly by the establishment backed ‘King and Church’ faction. Interestingly, despite religion playing a prominent part in most of his works, Blake was a firm friend of revolutionary thinker Tom Paine.

So what about Jerusalem? The symbolism behind the words is shrouded in considerable mystery and the dark satanic mills are a particular point of contest.  They are popularly taken to refer to the oppressive conditions of factories endured by the lower classes during rapid industrialisation. But another interpretation suggests the satanic mills are the Anglican churches and cathedrals, yet another insisting that they represent the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The published setting for Jerusalem, more correctly known as And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times is an issue rooted in republican history.  Written in 1804 the poem is part of a preface to a two volume poetic work called Milton: A Poem in Two Books.  The Milton in question is none other than the great republican poet John Milton who was at the height of his powers during the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the 1650s following the English Civil Wars.

So when the Prommers are bursting their lungs to Jerusalem they are indulging in a work with its roots deep in religious dissent and republicanism.  Personally, Blake is not the radical I warm to most, with his firebrand advocacy of religion I am more at home with the secular sympathies of Paine.

I would like to think that including the piece in the Proms is an acknowledgement of the importance of dissent to British society. Alas that would be self-delusion and it is likely that the majority of revelers couldn’t care less about the words and are genuinely ignorant of our radical or dissenting past. But they are hardly to blame, living in a culture which promotes a historical narrative of monarchy, privilege and empire and marginalizes the story of the long struggle for rights and freedoms for us all.

The UK Government; A Good Show of Complacency and Unbroken Self Esteem

The persons who retained longest the values of an earlier time were the men who lived their lives in office

This statement was made by R.J. White in his insightful book Waterloo to Peterloo. He was writing about the British Government following the years after 1815 but he could easily be writing of our present time (albeit he would need to replace ‘men’ with ‘men and women’!).

Whether it is a failure to understand the multiplicity of forces unleashed during the Brexit referendum or the alienation of people living in high rise tower blocks the remoteness of our leaders from the lives of the majority of citizens is leading Britain along a disastrous path.  This is before we take into account the pace of change in technology which will eliminate a large proportion of relatively well-paid middle-class jobs within a generation.  For example the availability of cheap on-the-fly and almost 100 percent accurate digital language translation services will render human translators virtually extinct within the next five to ten tears.  Similar stories are to be found in many areas of technology.  Yet no acknowledgement let alone preparation to meet this advancing cull of jobs is made by the Governing class.

Complacent commentators will point out that we have faced this situation before during the past three hundred years and that other jobs will inevitably appear to replace those lost. They omit, however, to mention those new jobs were directly or indirectly fostered by Government investment.  The widespread development and renovation of London in the late eighteenth century, the huge boost to industrial progress via a massive naval build-up and the expansion of Government administration are merely three examples. Set against those projects, HS2 hardly rates a mention!  But can we really expect toff Boris Johnson or any of the Oxbridge PPE professional political class to really understand the forces which are shaping the modern world.

It would be untrue to say that the current cabinet bore an exact relation to their early nineteenth equivalents of the Waterloo to Peterloo (which occurred in 1819) period of White’s book, but there is a strong resemblance being composed almost largely of upper middle class and recently ennobled aristocracy . Likewise, the fatal flaws of archaic attitude also pervades the current incumbents.  Maybe there is something about the British political system which drags back even the most progressive of intentions. It is an issue which those who advocate the value of tradition frequently miss.

Tradition not only works for the already privileged, by definition it does so by maitaining an atmosphere of archaic smugness.  It enables Theresa May to run a Government desperately trying to return to the financial rules which dominated her professional life in banking from 1977 to 1997, long before the financial crash and brutal austerity. It also provides her with a sense of self-destiny engendering an arrogance that Brexit can be delivered by a few handpicked people who are clearly out of their depth. This may precipitate as big a disaster as any which befell a nineteenth century British administration.

Wrining of the final retirement of that Government which included the disaster of the Peterloo massacre which the poet Shelley railed so passionately against in Mask of Anarchy, White wrote this equally telling statement.

They rode the whirlwind without pretense of controlling the storm.  They continued to hold office with a good show of complacency and they left office at the last with unshaken self-esteem.

A similar epithet may be written about the current Government.

The Priestley Riots: Fake news, Trolling, Vicious Media Attacks and Establishment Collusion.

Between 14th  and 17th July 1791 a period of sustained rioting convulsed Birmingham. The name given to the unrest, The Priestley Riots,  derives from the most notable target of the violence, the chemist, religious dissenter and political radical Joseph Priestley (credited with discovering Oxygen). The trigger for the rioting was a dinner held at the Dadley Hotel in Temple Row organised by radicals and religious Dissenters to mark the success of the assault on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. Mobs opposed to the Birmingham Dissenters attacked and burned not only their homes and chapels, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society. The details, however,  reveals the dark nature of establishment collusion.

According to eye witness accounts local Justices of the Peace Joseph Carles and Dr Benjamin Spencer (an Anglican vicar and, along with Carles, a member of the establishment supporting Bean Club) actively encouraged the mob. Moreover the Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke, was heard to issue a ‘guarantee’ of judicial protection to those taking part. Prior to the 14th July banquet, various incendiary posts and leaflets were published about the event, the sources of which are still unclear but highly unlikely to be the Dissenters themselves. Likewise a cartoon was published despicting Priestley holding up a platter and saying ‘The Kings head here’. Except that Priestley was not at the dinner. Today we would call it ‘fake news’!

Events following the riots were also shocking. The magistrates (remember Brooke’s ‘guarantee’) refused to arrest any of the rioters post facto and actually released those that had been arrested at the time When the Government forced the magisrates to try the riot ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and subverted the trials.  Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were brought to trial with four convicted.

The riots revealed that the Anglican gentry in collusion with the judiciary were prepared to use violence against Dissenters whom they viewed as potential revolutionaries . Bear in mind that at that time religious and political revolution were almost synonymous and the Monarch was head of the Church of England (as remains the case).  Those campaigning for the religious freedom and political reforms we enjoy today had to be prepared to face uncontrollable mobs.

Following the riots Joseph Priestley was forced to flee Birmingham and set up home in London. But things were justs as bad. Vicious political cartoons continued to be published about him, In a direct parallel to today’s ‘trolling’m  letters were sent to him from across the country, comparing him to the devil and Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Priestley and Tom Paine were publicly burned.

Fake news, trolling, vicious media attacks, inciting religious hatred and establishment collusion. Sound familiar?

Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head

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Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…

John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)

Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive  relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionary I find particularly useful:

…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.

From Milton to Shelley….

Some  writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:

I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..

Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)

Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later.  Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post.  Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant.  II started with England in 1819 a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.

Continue reading “Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head”

Duke of Wellington – Autocrat and Bully

If there is one thing everyone knows about Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington it is that he won the 1815 Battle of Waterloo bringing the era of Napoleon to a close. Debates over whether his victory (albeit facilitated out by the Prussian General Blucher) was a benefit or a curse are fun but gain little. Good or bad are less relevant than the historical fact. But here are some other things less well known about Wellington.

From 1797 Wellesley served in India rising to the rank of Major-General. He returned to Britain in 1804 having amassed a fortune of £42,000 the time, consisting mainly of prize money from his campaign. Prize money was mainly a naval matter, but existed in the British and  other armies as the proceeds of plunder especially when a town or city had been sacked. So in effect it was theft from the local population, but in reality Wellesley was only playing a part in the systematic ransacking of India during the less than glorious British Empire.

Move forward ro 1819 and Arthur Wellesley was Duke of Wellington, part of the Government led by Lord Liverpool. On August 19th a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn.

The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial. Wellington fully supported the brutal repression and consequently the incident became known as ‘Peterloo’ as a mocking play on his victory four years earlier. As a result he was despised in many places (especially Manchester!) being spat at and physically attacked on the streets.

He was unrelenting and when the first Great Reform Bill was presented to the House of Commons in 1831 Wellington and the Tories worked to prevent its passage.  As a reprisal his residence at Apsley House was targeted by a mob of demonstrators on 27 April 1831 and again on 12 October, leaving his windows smashed.  Iron shutters were installed (hence Iron Duke!) in June 1832 to prevent further damage. His attitude was unsustainable and being removed from office shortly after the Bill was passed in 1832 by Earl Grey’s administration.

There is, however, a somewhat ironic twist. One positive act which Wellington carried out  was Cathiolic Empancipation in 1829, giving catholics full rights in Britain and Ireland.  But as the establishment was (and still largely is) protestant in nature that too is less well publicised!

Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

Cassini’s copy of Newton’s Principia with inscription by Halley (© Observatoire de Paris)

In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory.  Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory.  This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.

Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume.  I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.

Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….

My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims.  For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law.   But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.

Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France.  Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the  Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.

….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.

Now back to my first example.  The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters.  It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters

The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English  Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.

So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments.  But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic).  Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!

Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”