The Cambridge radical press & the fight for democracy: 1841

The book Cambridge Newspapers and opinion 1780-1850 by Michael Murphy reveals the struggles between the Conservatives and the Whigs/Liberals and Radicals for both political power and either to prevent or to further political progress towards democracy.

The context of the article I’ve transcribed below is a Cambridge that is growing and industrialising. Its population of 1800 was around 9,000. By 1841 it had more than doubled. The 1830s – starting with the Great Reform Act 1982 led to successive pieces of legislation that forced through a number of changes on cities and towns across the country. One of those was the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 which overhauled Cambridge Borough Council, creating the foundations for the modern city council that we know today. A year later the town got its first police station – something today’s Conservatives are proposing moves out of the town centre, leaving Cambridge without a police station for the first time in its history since police stations were invented.

This was also a time when the Cambridge Tories selected a former slave owner as their MP-candidate – which led to protests on Parker’s Piece at his public introduction. Unfortunately for the Liberals, their candidate was such a poor public speaker that he ended up losing that election contest. That would not have been the only reason though. There was no compulsory education, so illiteracy was high. Women were banned from voting, as were most of the men due to the very limited franchise at the time. And the Great Reform Act was supposed to do away with rotten boroughs. Even the 2nd Reform Bill (1867) and the 3rd Reform Bill (1884) only extended the franchise to a minority of men. Even that most radical of Liberal Councillors, Henry Thomas Hall (Liberal – Barnwell) said that the education of the population needed to be improved significantly before it was ready to be a full democracy and a republic.

There are a number of themes that emerge from this opinion leader article in the Cambridge Advertiser – more than a few of which relate to the problems of contemporary politics today. Transcribed from the British Newspaper Archive, have a read:

“No class of mankind possesses in so small a degree the gift of longsightedness as that rejoicing in the appellation [call] of Tory. With them, the judgement is mystified by a perpetual dalliance with Error, and the mental vision obscured and perverted by the inebriating influence of a thousand prejudices.

“For purposes of party, for carrying forward the conflict of political ambition, the word Tory is but a name. The genuine principles of Toryism can have no place in the minds of men cultivated by education, enlightenment by experience, and exalted by knowledge. By some of these the name is assumed from motives of expediency, and often without any dishonest purpose. With others it is merely the sign of their birth, or the mark of a peculiar train of sentiment. They are nominally Tories, with all the liberality of heart and feeling and sentiment of judgement of a Benthamite.

“A strong, poetic temperament, an imagination delighting in the shadowy wildness of the past, a viewing the gaunt forms of chivalry and the broken ruins of romance through the mellowing tints of time – often adopts the political distinction of Tory, with scarcely an understanding of the principles of that party.

“After this sort have many of our poets, and some of the most admirable writers of fiction, been – under the denomination of Tories – the most powerful advocates and producers of reform. It would be idle, therefore, to seek for any affinity between the views of such minds as these, and Toryism properly so-called, as it is expounded in the ultra-journals of that faction, and seen in the actions of the narrow-minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and corrupt part of mankind.

“We have premised this distinction, that our readers may not suppose we have ever confounded with those whom we described at the commencement of this article as perverted by error and blinded by prejudice, the many superior men who, from the causes we have hinted at, have conferred an accidental honour and distinction on a faction against the practical views of which their private judgement and written thought rebelled. What mental assimilation could be found, for instance, between a Bishop Percy and a Bishop Philpotts, a Bowles and Bradshaw; the poet [George] Crabbe and the parson Escott? Sir Walter Scott and Sir Andrew Agnew would have found some difficulty to reconcile their Toryism, and Samuel Rogers and Samuel Long would be at a loss for a subject of mutual congratulation.

“This distinction, which at first sight may appear apropros [with reference to…] to nothing, explains the contradictory facts of the present strain of Tory boasting and songs of triumph, and the existence of a state of society which surely forebodes the utter destruction of the power and influence of that society.

“Perhaps at no period in the political history of Great Britain has the position of party interests assumed an aspect more calculated to give rise to the speculation and conjecture than it wears at this juncture. And certainly never were the temper of the public mind and tone of public feeling more unconnected with, and independent of, ministerial tactics and opposition manoeuvres.

“This, while men may speculate on the prospects of Whigs maintaining their places, or Tories coming into power, of coalition, or dissolution; there is one fact progressively developing itself in our social organisation, which must render the results of party struggles of minor importance. The mass of Tories are blind to the power, of not to the existence of this fact. The reflective and intelligent among them are fully alive to it; and hence the division and contradiction in the ranks of that party which prevail.

“The bulk of the Tories assure themselves that society has undergone no change or, if they allow this, they declare that the change has passed away, and men are fast returning to their old opinions. Here is the fallacy, on which they will lean till the broken reed lets them fall, never to rise again. The power of democracy is the fact of which we speak.

“They are slight ebullitions of this power, which have at various seasons overturned a Tory administration, often unseen, unfelt alike by the agents and the victims of agency. It is but a few years since democracy in England began to make itself apparent and perceptible. It has now grown into a tangible and giant mover of society, extending through all its ramifications, burying beneath it the feudalism of past eras, establishing an empire of the mind on the ruins of oligarchical interests; making wealth subsidiary to labour, to enterprise, and knowledge; demolishing the “vested rights” of the few, and restoring to the many their right.

“This democratic power has already gone far, it will yet go farther, and its progress can be stayed at the point where it ceases to benefit and become the agent of ruin, only by a government which itself is democratical, which legislates for the interests of the people, and which received the unfailing and constitutional support of the great body of the intelligent, the wealthy, and the liberal-minded.

“Now, we put utterly aside the despicable cant of the cry of “Measures, not men,” for we hold it the height of absurdity to expect good measures from bad principles. Wisdom does not spring from ignorance, neither can wise policy and safe legislation from bigotry, tyranny, prejudice, and corruption.

“We are not, therefore, to expect a policy of government adapted to the wants and exigencies of the time from the Tories. IF these men once more rule in our senate, it must be the reformed portion of them. To imagine the principles of positive Toryism governing our legislature, and influencing our measures at home and abroad, is to suppose the realization of a fearful national calamity.

“If not producing an immediate rupture between the governors and the governed, it must lead to a continual struggle between law and opinion, between the desires of the people and their fears; and eventually between enlightenment, aided by physical force, and ignorance, supported by the same means. This cannot occur. The people are too wise to allow even its approach. Toryism can never again govern England. Its death knell has sounded in a voice and language not to be misunderstood by a wise and intelligent; though not heard, or if audible, yet unintelligible to those who yet are fettered and blinded by its influence.

“These considerations denoted the unimportance of the events to which Tories are now attaching so much value. A dozen such successes were achieved by intrigue and corruption at Canterbury and Walsall could profit them from nothing. Their nominal powerful minority in the House is not powerful to benefit them; it must do the work of their opponents. The progress of reformation must continue, whether they will or not. It is not that they are unable to stop the stream of liberal improvement throughout the country which betrays their weakness, so much as the fact, that they cannot prevent the greatest and the best of their own party from falling into it.

“The herd of Tories can no longer assimilate themselves to the chiefs of their faction. Sir Robert Peel has already become the target for the abuse of The Times, and the doings of those to whom the Tories have long accustomed to look as their best and most powerful advocates are found walking side-by-side with the “friends of the people”

“We wish to impress this state of things on our liberal friends of this town. We have watched with regret the system which appears to have been adopted in the proceedings of our Town Council (if that can be called a system, which is totally devoid of order). The scenes of personal altercation, the exposition of what seems to be to us little better than personal malignancy, as unfitted for a Council Chamber, as they are unworthy the men who stand on such high and unimpeachable ground as the liberal inhabitants of Cambridge.

“It is certain that, puffed up with temporary success, the Tories completely mistake their own position, and the feelings of their townsmen. They esteem (as we have demonstrated) their opinions in the ascendant. Never, we repeat, were they more grossly deceived. The Tories of Cambridge are, perhaps, the most flagrant specimens of that genus – they may well, therefore, be blinded by the superficial appearance of their popularity. Let not the Whigs for the present, attempt to beat them out of this belief – far less let them descend to their level of argument and conduct.

“The truth will soon prevail here as elsewhere. The more open the display of principles of the men now in office which is made, the sooner will unmitigated public odium and disgust drive them back to the obscurity from which they have but lately emerged. Let the Liberal Party reflect on this.”


Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation or take out a small subscription to support my ongoing work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s