Romantic Memory: Forgetting, Remembering and Feeling in the Chartist Pantheon of Heroes, c.1790–1840

Ahead of Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Matthew Roberts, the author of Chartism, Commemoration and the Cult of the Radical Hero (2020). He will be responding to your questions about his research on the politics of memory in the Chartist movement between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 19 January 2021. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

This blog, which explores the politics of remembrance in Chartism and in British political culture, is based on Matthew’s full-length seminar paper, ‘Romantic Memory: Forgetting, Remembering and Feeling in the Chartist Pantheon of Heroes, c.1790–1840’, which is available here.

Pantheonism, the invention of tradition, heritage politics and even the broader political uses of the past, are under-explored aspects of modern British political culture. When groups go to the length of instituting discrete remembrance events, practices and rituals, it becomes clear just how important these things were, and British politics is no exception.

There is no shortage of material here: if some of the heroes are well known – King Alfred, Peel, the Tolpuddle Martyrs – and some of the historical episodes familiar – Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Peterloo – what function they were made to perform and how they have been imaginatively re-constructed remains unclear. Focusing on collective memory, posthumous and heroic reputation can also shed new light on familiar historical figures and episodes.

My paper for the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar approaches some of these issues through a case-study of Chartism, the mass movement for democratic and social rights which swept across Britain from the late 1830s to the 1850s. Such forms of dissident commemoration have received much less attention than ‘official’ forms of state remembrance.

Chartism took its name from its foundational document listing its demands for parliamentary reform, The People’s Charter, published in 1838. Public Domain [British Library].

Unlike elite forms of commemoration, dissident groups had neither access to the public sphere nor the funds to build pantheons in stone. Rather, the Chartist pantheon was a paper one: an imagined group of mostly dead radicals – pre-eminently Thomas Paine and William Cobbett.

Along with William Cobbett, Thomas Paine was the co-reigning deity in the Chartist pantheon. CC British Museum.

To learn more about the form and composition of the Chartist pantheon, about who was included and why, you can visit an online exhibition that I curated using Art UK’s curation tool.

In my most recent research, I have begun to explore the question, not of remembering, but forgetting and erasure; that is, which individuals and episodes in the radical tradition were either forgotten or consciously excluded? Forgetting and excluding can be just as revealing as remembering and including. Why, for example, was the hugely popular and influential 1790s British radical John Thelwall largely forgotten by the Chartists? What determines posthumous potential – is it mainly factors in the life of the historical figure as they lived, or does it depend more on what happens after they die?

John Thelwall, member of the London Corresponding Society, was famously acquitted of treason in 1794 and widely feted by radicals in the 1790s as this commemorative token suggests, but not by the 1840s. CC British Museum.

Like much else in the first half of the nineteenth century, politics, society and culture were profoundly shaped by the legacy of Romanticism. Chartist heritage politics was no exception. The form and composition of the Chartist pantheon was shaped by a romantic aesthetic – a pantheon of flawed heroes – some of whom like the Romantic poets explicitly wrote for posterity. While the impact of Romanticism can be hardly denied, not all Chartists were keen to dress their heroes in romantic clothing. Some Chartists like the London artisan William Lovett rejected the unchecked appeals to the passions and introversion associated with Romanticism. Chartist aversion to this pull was a legacy, in part, of the enduring impact of the radical Enlightenment which sought to re-establish an age of reason as against passion.

Minute Book of the London Working Men’s Association, the body of self-improving and respectable artisan Chartists led by William Lovett who spoke out against passion in politics. Public Domain [British Library].

Chartist heritage politics became an arena for a broader debate about the place of feeling in politics. This is the focus of my forthcoming book, Democratic Passions: The Politics of Feeling in British Radicalism, 1809–1848, due to be published by Manchester University Press later this year. In this book, I challenge the assumption – just as alive today as it was then – that the political sphere was an arena of reason in which feelings had no part to play.

MR

Matthew will be responding to your questions about his research on the parliamentary resistance to the abolition of slavery between 5:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on 19 January 2021. Details on how to join the discussion are available here or by contacting seminar@histparl.ac.uk

This blog, which explores the politics of remembrance in Chartism and in British political culture, is based on Matthew’s full-length seminar paper, ‘Romantic Memory: Forgetting, Remembering and Feeling in the Chartist Pantheon of Heroes, c.1790–1840’, which is available here.

Dr Matthew Roberts is the author of Chartism, Commemoration and the Cult of the Radical Hero (Routledge, 2020). He works mainly on nineteenth-century British political and cultural history, with research specialisms in the history of popular politics and protest, the visual and material culture of politics, and the history of emotions. He is currently Associate Professor in Modern British History at Sheffield Hallam University.

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