Radical newspaper the Cambridge General Advertiser slams Cambridge University Dons for backing former slave-owning Tory MP Sir Alexander Grant

Not long after winning a very controversial election in Cambridge, the former slave owner Sir Alexander Grant was assailed in the radical newspaper The Cambridge General Advertiser in an op-ed on 17 June 1840.

This came hot on the heels of being heckled on Parker’s Piece by anti-slavery activists. But what’s interesting about this is not the flowery language that might not sit well with a 21st Century audience, but what it tells us about the influence of individuals within, and institutions of the University of Cambridge. It also reveals some fo the discontent with the Great Reform Bill that created a new group of targets for intimidation and corruption by the Rutland/Mortlock Tory interest that had held back the forces of political reform in Cambridge for over half a century.

This was the result of very public voting that resulted in the voting record of every voter being made public in printed publications. That meant the campaigning operations of candidates could check up whether those that had promised to vote for them had actually delivered. And if they had reneged on promises, the results could be devastating – financially, and for the personal safety not just for themselves but their families too. The article ends with. a call for new laws to bring in voting by secret ballot. It would take another 32 years before Parliament legislated for votes by secret ballot – something we take for granted today.

The article is from the British Newspaper Archive here, which I’ve transcribed as follows:

“The situation of the town before the passing of the Reform Bill, abominable and disgraceful as it was, possessed some advantages over our present condition, neither small in their amount, nor discreditable in their character.

“If deprived of the right of sending a member to Parliament to represent their sentiments, men were still left at liberty to think for themselves, and express their opinions as they listed. If the hireling dependent of some wealthy aristocrat were put forward as the representative of a people he perhaps had never seen, and whose thoughts and habits he despised, the inhabitants of the town of Cambridge were not forced to the degradation of recording their votes in his favour.

“The disgrace and odium attending his election fell not upon them, but were borne alone by the authorised agents of corruption,— a depraved and besotted corporation, and the organized body of hereditary serfs who were born and bred but to do the bidding of their lord.

“Cambridge itself was free from the guilt. the demoralization, the disgrace which at this time formed a part of the elective system. Men of honest and independent minds were left free to express their disgust, abhorrence, and pity. The liberty of indignation, the right of murmuring, were freely accorded to them by their oppressors, as long as the power to oppress was secure.

“Of these advantages the Reform Bill has bereft them. That measure has destroyed some minor evils, only to open the door to far greater ones, and less endurable. In this Borough it has but raised up a host of victims for persecution who before were suffered to possess their own opinions in peace.

“Besides persecution, it has enlarged the extent of depravity. The honest and moral man has his conscience fettered, and his mind enthralled, by intimidation and the fear of ruin to himself and his family — the dissolute and vicious are placed in moral bondage by the licence and power accorded to them for indulgence in every bad and loathsome passion.

“Under the semblance of a great boon, the Reform Bill has proved a curse. We will not now stop to elucidate the absurdity,—nay, the criminality of Lord John Russell’s scheme of finality, or to explain (what is apparent to all) that nothing but the annihilation of the power of Toryism ought ever to be contemplated as the final issue of Reform.

“We will but briefly place the present situation of our readers before them, and appeal to the common sense of every individual amongst them, whether, in the choice of two evils, the former state of silent bondage and unrepresented servitude, under a Rutland oligarchy, were not infinitely preferable to the possession of a freedom which they dare not exercise; or, in so daring, hazard their worldly prospects, suffer every species of persecution, and involve themselves and children in ruin.

“There is not in this town one tradesman in a hundred whose business is independent of the University; and thus ninety-nine out of every hundred are professing Tories. We have heard effect styled the natural result of legitimate influence. This is the favourite phrase of the hardened advocate of corruption, by which the degraded apologist of intimidation would seek to cover the infamous abuse of power.

No influence can be legitimate but that of reason over conviction. When, we will ask, have the Tutors, Fellows, and Masters of Colleges ever condescended to use this influence? Never. They stoop to reason with a tradesman, to argue with a mechanic! How great a degradation of the gown would this be! Their influence is conveyed in a syllogism similar to this : —

“You work for me—l pay you money—vote for the Whigs and perish.”

“Admirable logic, and worthy of the schools, the combination-room, and hall! worthy of the pious ministers of the Gospel, of reverend doctors in divinity, of scholars, and men of letters! Oh, these are the men of peaceful lives, students of the liberal arts, who will stride into the shop of — it may be — a timid tailor, with a wife and nine children, who once, in a fit of enthusiasm, signed a petition for Reform; or of an unfortunate cook, who has been deluded by the virtues of the Ballot, for’ getting that his oven smoked but by the permission of a Vice-Chancellor, and that his pies and tartlets were baked only for the august palates of gowned gormandizers [a glutton].

“The best chair is dusted for the reverend Don; the aghast tailor, or perspiring cook, stand trembling before the eye of the incensed visitant: then comes the denunciation which consigns the transgressor to ruin ;— “You, tailor, shall never more put in a stitch, or hem a gown for St. John’s. You, cook, shall cease to send in your bills to the Tutors.” “Alas ! sir,” reply the stricken tradesmen. “we will vote for Sir Alexander Grant.” “See that you do so, but never speak again about Reform and the Ballot. Such things are irreligious, and you must support the Church.”

“Is this an exaggerated representation? The voices of hundreds could answer — No. It is a fact of daily occurrence. It is a system which has prevailed for years. It is the “legitimate influence” of the University over the minds of the townsmen.

“We have no need to draw upon imagination for such pictures; we might relate — could we do it with safety to the parties — innumerable similar facts. Hundreds during the late election were forced to the poll by such means; and many who would have saved the compunctious visitings of their consciences by not voting at all, were driven to the hustings by the abuse and threats of members of the University, to swell the majority of Sir A. Grant.

“Abhorrent to every feeling of justice and moral rectitude as this conduct on the part of the University is, we still view it with less disgust when practised by a body whose interests are unconnected with our own, than when adopted by our fellow-townsmen.

“The Tories of the town are united in spirit and feeling with those of the University. They cannot indeed intimidate to the same extent, — but they do worse. Their accursed weapons are those of bribery and corruption; — they, without compunction, render themselves the instruments to degrade and demoralize the men they should look upon as their brethren; — they infamously pander to the worst appetites of the most depraved; — they supply the means of debauchery, drunkenness, and crime; — they unscrupulously trample down every feeling of honour and virtue, and recklessly endeavour to reduce the town in which they live to a state of the most filthy and heart-sickening corruption; — morality, men’s honesty, their principles, their consciences, they would remorselessly sacrifice to perpetuate abuse, to uphold iniquity.

“Are these things untrue? We again appeal to the knowledge and experience of every man; — we appeal for their confirmation to the disgusting avowals, the infamous apologies put forth by the Tory organ in this town. We have no words to express our loathing and detestation of those parties, the writers for that contemptible journal, who can dare unblushingly, week after week, to come forth before the public with purposes such as these, like some unclean and obscene animal, which from the dark cavern where it has been digesting its venom, crawls out to poison the air it inhales by the noxious i blasts of its pestiferous breath.

“Such, then, are a few of the evils to which this town is now exposed. The machinations of the Tories have lately been carried on with that success which leaves but little room for hope that, unless some measure of protection he afforded, we shall ever be relieved from witnessing the ignoble thraldom and moral degradation of this borough.

“The question is, will the electors submit to be trampled on by a corrupt and persecuting oligarchy – or will they be free? If the latter be their wish, but one method exists for the attainment of it. To all who have suffered, and who now suffer, and to those who will in future suffer from persecution, – to all who are the friends of justice, of morality and religion, we say – and we would that our voice could be heard from one extremity of England to the other –

Petition for the ballot

“The petition now in circulation for this object has been signed by nearly 700 electors. To those who, from fear of having their names exposed, have hitherto refrained from signing it we say, “Come forward now, lest a worse evil befall you – lost long years of slavery, ignominy, and ruthless oppression crumble you to the dust! – dare now the lesser evil, to secure yourselves from the greater. – Sign this petition, and never cease from petitioning until the ballot has secured your freedom.”


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