To what extent was Fergus O’Connor a force for good as a leader of the Chartist Movement?

The leadership of Fergus O’Connor can be debated as he did do a lot for the causes of the Chartist Movement; however considering as him as ‘a force for good’ can be debated because did his achievements actually have any good consequences within them or was his tactics too extreme for certain Chartist supporters.

There are two sides to Fergus O’Connor and many historians and other Chartist leaders have both criticised and praised him for his efforts during the Chartist Movement. One of O’Connor’s most used tactic was to use physical violence to achieve the six points of the Charter; however not all Chartists agreed with this method as many preferred peaceful protests and petitions. O’Connor was very popular with skilled workers and was highly critical of other leaders that did not want to use violence. There is one historian, George Julian Harney, that did maintain some respect for Fergus, praising his for his tolerance of others’ views towards him and his willingness to have those views expressed in his own newspaper , Harney concluded that if O’Connor was metaphorically ‘thrown overboard, we might go further and fare worse’. This shows that O’Connor’s leadership was praised and his efforts were recognised by others.

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Even though Harney was very praising of O’Connor others weren’t so charitable, especially those who considered themselves from the ‘thinking’, artisan end of Chartism were especially critical of the way in which O’Connor manipulated crowds to satisfy his own leadership ambitions. One Chartist Robert Lowery who was impressed by the local leadership shown by Augustus Beaumont and was clearly influenced by his opinion of O’Connor. One source written by Lowery in a passage in ‘the Life of a Temperance Lecture’ (1856-97) said that despite the face that O’Connor is becoming popular, he has not got any reasoning behind his words and has no plans for the future of Chartists, also it is stated that he is vain and cannot be trusted, ”became popular… He was no reasoner, saw no deeper that the surface of things…”. Another source that also gives a negative view of O’Connor is a letter from Harney to Friedrich Engles in 1846, this letter stated that by using physical force is more likely to bring harm instead of good, however when he calls for physical force they agree but don’t do it. ”to attempt a ‘physical -force’ agitation at the present time would be productive of no good but on the contrary of some evil.” Despite the fact that this source was a letter from Harney and is critical of O’Connor and has praised him once before for his tolerance of others, Harney did not agree with the use of psychical violence to achieve the six points.

Fergus O’Connor was the leading editor of the ‘Northern Star’; the Northern Star was a weekly newspaper that supported the reform of Parliament, the newspaper was a great success and by the spring of 1839 was selling over 48,000 copies a week. Despite the massive success of the newspaper O’Connor still got into trouble for publishing seditious prints, because of this O’Connor was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment regardless of this O’Connor still managed to edit his newspaper from his prison cell. This can portray O’Connor in two different lights; the first being that he was a powerful and determined man that had little or no respect for higher authorities or it could show that he was determined to do whatever it takes to make the Chartist more powerful and to achieve the six points. This makes O’Connor a force for good as a leader of the Chartists as he enabled people to read and learn about the Chartists and their motives; especially the poor who could not necessarily afford books or for those of people who could not attend mass speeches. However for those who were very ill-educated it was a source of no good for them especially if they were unable to attend the speeches.

One of the biggest strengths of O’Connor would most probably be his speech making, O’Connor was very influential and passionate when he spoke out to big crowds. In the majority of his speeches O’Connor spoke of being willing ”to die for the cause” and promising to ”lead people to death or glory”. However O’Connor was one for using phrases and words of physical force as a threat in his rhetoric however this outraged some other Chartist leaders at the time; Lovett and Hetherington. In one speech by O’Connor at Peep Green in July 1839, he implied acts of violence, ”should we be attacked today, come what will, life, death, or victory” this is proof that O’Connor is prepared to use acts of violence to fight for what he believes to be right, also in this speech O’Connor says ”I am repelling attack by attack.” This also shows that he is a firm believer of violence and is prepared to use acts of violence. With O’Connor’s firm belief of using physical force made moral Chartists become more and more dissatisfied with him. This implies that O’Connor could be a ‘force for good’ for the Chartist movement in some senses but not in others, for example his rhetoric would have made some people believe and support him however would have made the more moral supports dislike him and thus not agree with his causes and not support him.

There have been lots of different interpretations on O’Connor’s leadership to whether he had a positive or negative influence over the Chartist movement. Many historians agree that O’Connor emerged as the key successor of Henry Hunt, especially when he toured the north of England in 1835 when he did much to mobilise parliamentary reform. Other historians like Epstein and Royle believed that Fergus O’Connor did more than any other leader to develop the organisational structure of the Chartist movement and without O’Connor the Chartist movement would have crumbled, this is the view that many historians from, the 1970’s onwards share, O’Connor was also very demagogy so thus he knew how exactly to work a crowd and make them believe in his intentions. Fergus O’Connor was also the creator of The National Charter Association, started in 1841. The NCA was an organisation created to encourage as many working class people to join and support the Chartist movement, the NCA was considered by many to be a success, especially by the historian Royle who described the NCA to be the backbone of the Chartist movement with 400 branches and 50,000 members.

There is one source that is highly praising of O’Connor and is a book by J. Epstein ‘The Lion of Freedom’ which stated that O’Connor’s leadership gained him popular support even if his ideas were not his own he always had ways to interpreter these ideas and make them happen. The source said ”As an organiser an agitator he made his greatest contribution.” This shows that despite all of his faults he was still a great leader and always strived to achieve his best no matter what the circumstance or of other people’s reactions to his motive and actions. Another source which is also highly praising of O’Connor is a book by D. Thompson, ‘The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution’ this source states that O’Connor is without doubt a important leader and was the centre of the movement and people supported him; he was a national figure. ”of the importance of Fergus O’Connor as a national leader, there can… be no question…’. These are all reasons and explanations to why and how O’Connor was a successful leader during the Chartist movement, however there are negative and critical views of O’Connor’s leadership during the movement.

One of the main reasons to why O’Connor could be seen as an awful leader is his use of physical force to achieve his political aims, his frequent language meant that large numbers of the working and middle classes did not find the Chartist movement as appealing as they would if its leaders did not voice such support for this use of violence. Some historians believed that O’Connor was only a Chartist leader to further his own career, one historian R. G. Gammage claimed that O’Connor only wanted followers of the Chartists to be a mob and his rival for the leadership, William Lovett, claimed that because of O’Connor the perception of the Chartists was that they were ”thieves, liars and traitors to the cause.” Also is has been stated that O’Connor was impossible to work with and did not collaborate well with others at all. He always wanted to be boss but he often had no clear policy, especially at the moment of crises when he said first one thing and then another and always came down on what he felt likeliest to be the winning side. Some historians also believe that despite the fact that O’Connor’s leadership through his personality united the movement it also divided the leadership. One source that is critical of O’Connor and his actions and motives is a book written by the historian R. G. Gammage ‘History of the Chartist Movement, 1837-54” which stated that despite the appearances of O’Connor he was not as clever as expected, his judgements were often unpredictable and he made a lot of mistakes so thus means less support. ”but this essential quality of greatness he lacked,” These are all reasons and explanations to how and why O’Connor was not so much of a good leader as some might have fault.

In conclusion I think that O’Connor was a successful leader and was a ’cause of good for the Chartist movement’ despite all of his flaws he did contribute a huge amount to the cause, he was a very influential leader to many and event though he supported the use of physical force he rarely used it in his protests.