Posts Tagged ‘R.J. Richardson’

Gun Rights in 19th Century Britain: A Left-Wing Cause

July 7, 2013

The issue of gun rights – the right of the individual to bear arms, as stated in the American 2nd Amendment, is today pretty much the preserve of the Conservative Right in America and Britain. There are some Democrats and Radicals, however, who support the individual’s right to arm him- or herself against tyranny. In 19th century Britain, however, gun rights were supported and demanded by radical members of the disenfranchised working class.

Peter Hitchens on Contemporary Politics and the British Empire

After the last shooting tragedy in America, Peter Hitchens’ posted his views on the issue on his blog on the Mail on Sunday webpage. Hitchen’s is very much a man of the Right, having rejected his youthful Trotskyite Marxism and moved across the floor to Conservatism. He is also a staunch defender of Christianity, unlike his late brother, Christopher, who was a militant New Atheist. Nevertheless, politically Hitchen’s is very much his own man. He heartily despises David Cameron for his rejection of tradition, Conservative marriage and sexual morality. He frequently derides him as ‘Mr. Slippery’ for Cameron’s electoral duplicity and lack of any consistent morals. Some of his views seem to be those of the traditional Left, or Butlerian Conservatism, rather than modern Cameronite post-Thatcherism. He had opposed the sale to the private sector of council houses and the railway network, and objects to private policing and prisons on the grounds that only the state has the moral authority to prosecute and punish crime. Many of his views are eccentric and highly controversial. He believes that we should have stayed out of the Second World War, for example. In his view this would have allowed us to preserve our national independence and Empire against the supranational, unaccountable misgovernment of the European Union. I believe he is profoundly mistaken in this. In one of his articles from the 1930, George Orwell describes watching a parade of Black African troopers in the French army in Morocco. Orwell describes the troopers’ expectant looks as they saluted the watching White officers. He stated that at that point, he knew what every white man there was thinking, ‘How long can we keep on fooling these people?’ The break-up of the British Empire was partly a product of Britain’s economic exhaustion and near-defeat by the Axis during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the independence movements in Africa and particularly India predate the War. Modern historians of the British Empire have pointed out that the Empire was actually an economic drain on Britain after c. 1900. In many ways the Second World War merely accelerated a process that had already began, rather than caused the break-up of the Empire.

Peter Hitchen’s on Gun Ownership

However strange or peculiar Hitchen’s views are, they are always historically informed. According to Hitchen’s, 19th century Britain had an attitude towards the freedom to buy arms that makes modern Texan legislation look positively effeminate. The licensing of firearms was only introduced in the 1920 when governments feared a possible revolution. I don’t know, but this sounds about right. The 1917 Russian Revolution had been accompanied by radical revolutionary campaigns throughout Europe. A soviet revolution broke out in Germany in 1919, comprising independent radical Socialists and anarchists, which then gave rise to a full-scale Communist insurrection in German, Austria and Hungary. Italy in the same period saw ‘Red Week’ and the invasion of the factories, again by radical Socialists. Even after these were put down, the situation was still very unstable politically, with militant anti-democratic movements of both Left and Right. These included the Nazis in Germany, and the seizure of power by Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. It was against the rise of these violent, paramilitary movements, including the British Union of Fascists, that the government introducing legislation banning uniformed political organisations. My guess is that the restriction on firearms ownership was part of this legislation.

19th Century British Chartism

In 19th century England, the right to own guns and other weapons was demanded by the ‘physical force’ Chartists, militantly campaigning for the franchise to be extended to the working class. Government at that time was strongly aristocratic, and the franchise was very much restricted to the landed aristocracy and gentry and the middle classes. Poverty, disease and squalor were common. Working hours were long, and conditions appalling. Fourteen hours days were the norm. One German writer in the 1820 in Bavaria said he knew young people in their 1920s who already looked like old men, so worn out were they by hard work. Chartism was an attempt by the working class to gain the right to vote and political freedom against this background of hardship and inequality. Led by the London cabinet-maker, William Lovett and Francis Place, a master tailor, the movement’s charter, from which it took its name, had six demands:

1. Votes for all men over 21.
2. No property qualifications.
3. Annual parliaments.
4. Equal Representation (which meant that all electoral constituencies were to be equal in size)
5. Payment of MPs
6. Vote by ballot.

Chartism and the Right to Bear Arms

Beyond the Charter, the movement could be extremely diverse with no uniform political philosophy. Most Chartists were laissez-faire economic liberals. Some were Socialists. There were Christian Chartists, who combined a radical programme of political democracy with worship of the Lord in their own chapels. There was also a division between ‘physical force’ Chartists, who were prepared to use violence to advance their gaols, and the more respectable ‘moral force’ Chartists, who believed that only logic and rational persuasion should be used. Among the ‘physical force’ Chartists were Joseph Rayner Stephens and R.J. Richardson. Stephens was a radical Methodist minister from Ashton-Under-Lyne, who had been disowned by the Methodist Conference for his views. He exhorted working men to take up arms to defend their constitutional rights against a brutal, centralizing authority. R.J. Richardson, who came from Salford, joined him in his demands. In 1839 he gave a lecture to the Chartist National Convention ‘to show the advantage and propriety of arming the people as the best guarantee of the liberties of a country’, citing authorities as diverse as Aristotle, Queen Elizabeth and Dr. Johnson.

Decline of Chartism and Hitchen’s View of Gun Ownership

Chartism declined after the middle of the century from a number of causes. Partly this was ridicule, as the monster petitions of millions of signatures presented to parliament by the Chartists to secure constitutional reform consisted mostly of forged signatures, like ‘the Duke of Wellington’ and ‘Queen Victoria’. Another cause was the rise in living standards as the economy expanded and legislation improved housing and working conditions. Lastly, successive legislation enlarging the franchise, culminating in that of Disraeli’s Conservatives, gave nearly all working men except the very poorest the vote, thus making the Charter obsolete. Nevertheless, its history does show that in the 19th century the right to bear arms was a demand of the revolutionary Left, rather than the Conservative Right as it is today. As for Hitchens’ view of gun ownership, he stated that in his view you should have the right to own one, but having seen what they did to the human body, you shouldn’t really want one.

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