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Carlyle’s Chartism and the Politics of the (In) Articulate
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The speaking classes speak and debate, each for itself; the great dumb, deep-buried class lies like an Enceladus, who in his pain, if he will complain of it, has to produce earthquakes!

—Carlyle, Chartism (215)

Thomas Carlyle’s long essay Chartism was published in December 1839, at the end of a tumultuous year of demonstrations, riots, arrests, and trials. The Chartists’ National Petition, with over one million signatures attached, was presented to Parliament in June; Parliament rejected the petition in July. That same month, rioting erupted in Birmingham and Newcastle, and trials of Chartists were underway in various cities. Carlyle finished writing his manuscript in November, about two weeks after the Newport Rising, which left more than twenty Chartists dead, more than fifty wounded, and over two hundred arrested. Although published at the end of 1839, Carlyle had discussed writing a “Discourse on the Working Classes” with John Stuart Mill nearly two years earlier and had indicated in letters to various correspondents that he had been thinking about writing such an essay for nearly twenty years. In a 27 May 1839 letter to his brother Alick, Carlyle writes, “I have in view to write an Article on the Poor People. I have long felt a kind of obligation to do it. I offered [it] last year to Mill, but he refused unless I would come to the conclusion that their situation was gradually improving” (CLO). He planned instead to send the article to Lockhart at the Tory Quarterly Review, but when the essay was complete and in the hands of Lockhart, Carlyle knew it would be rejected. In a 25 November letter to his friend John Sterling, Carlyle writes,

Only last week I finished an astonishing piece of work, a long review article, thick pamphlet or little volume, entitled “Chartism.” Lockhart has it, for it was partly promised to him, at least the refusal of it was; and that, I conjecture, will be all he enjoy of it. Such an Article, equally astonishing to Girondin Radicals, Donothing Aristocrat Conservatives, and Unbelieving Dilettante Whigs, can hope for no harbour in any review. (CLO)

Lockhart indeed declined to publish Chartism, and although Mill now offered to publish it in the Westminster Review, Carlyle decided against it, as he explained to his mother Margaret in a letter from 5 December 1839:

The Tory Quarterly Review people kept it for a week; and then, seemingly not without reluctance, sent it back, saying, “We dare not.” Mill saw it next, and contrary to my expectation expressed himself eager to have it, and publish it in his final Number, as a kind of final shout; that he might sink like a Vengeur battle-ship, with a broadside at the water’s-edge! But Jane and Jack [Carlyle’s wife and brother], and my own feelings too, advise that the thing is too good for that purpose. I have had nothing to do with their hide-bound Westminster Review, that I should sink along with it. I offered them this very thing two years ago, the blockheads; and they durst not let me write it then. (CLO)

In the end, Carlyle resolved to have Chartism published as a separate pamphlet, “on my own independent footing” (CLO 5 Dec. 1839). Arrangements were soon made with the publisher James Fraser, and Chartism was published in December 1839, with an initial print run of one thousand copies.

Carlyle’s difficulty finding an appropriate publishing venue for his work—an essay that “can hope for no harbor in any review,” Tory, Whig, or Radical—should serve us as a cautionary tale when attempting to delineate the political perspective of Chartism (CLO 25 Nov. 1839, “Letter to John Sterling”). Nevertheless, many contemporary critical interpretations of Chartism continue to focus on articulating the politics of Carlyle’s essay, often positioning Carlyle as the forbear of a rather astonishingly wide range of ideologies, including not only liberalism and conservatism but also socialism and fascism. At the core of such critical assessments is Carlyle’s peculiar representation of the Chartist activists, and the working class in general, as “inarticulate”: “that great dumb toiling class which cannot speak” (Chartism 154).

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