This is the second of two posts on the ‘Top Progressive Moments of the 19th Century’ in the UK. You can read the first part here.
7. Publication of ‘On Liberty’ (1859)
Described as the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill was a proponent of the ethical system of utilitarianism, which proposed a social system that prioritised maximising people’s happiness and reducing human suffering. In his work ‘On Liberty’, Mill emphasised the importance of individuality and discussed the dangers of a ‘tyranny of the majority’. It was an influential work, forming the basis of liberal political thought, and has remained in print continuously since its original publication.
6. Release of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (1836)
In 1832, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the ‘Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers’, which was in effect a trade union. They were protesting the reduction in agricultural wages brought about by increasing mechanisation. Although technically trade unions were no longer illegal following the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825, an obscure 1797 law banning people from swearing oaths to each other meant that the men were prosecuted and sentenced to transportation to Australia. The ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ were freed in 1836 following a mass political march and petition, and the support of Home Secretary John Russell.
5. Abolition of Slavery (1833)
While the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had banned the slave trade in the British Empire, slavery itself had not withered as hoped for by the abolitionists. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was a culmination of the British anti-slavery movement’s campaign, and spurred by parliamentary inquiries into the large-scale slave revolt in Jamaica in 1831. It was implemented in phases, with slave-owners receiving millions of pounds in collective compensation, and slavery was not outlawed in India until a decade later.
4. Publication of the People’s Charter (1838)
The People’s Charter was a statement of working-class political claims, advocated by a group called the Chartists. The Charter called for six democratic rights, including universal male suffrage, payment of MPs, vote by secret ballot, the abolition of MP property qualifications, equal-sized constituencies and annual parliamentary elections. The first four of these aims were eventually achieved by the 20th century.
3. Popular Education (1870)
Drafted by Liberal MP W. E. Forster, the Elementary Education Act of 1870 established the foundations of universal education in Britain, forcing local authorities to provide paid school places for children aged 5-13 where existing charitable provision was inadequate. A number of pressures encouraged the new investment in education, including a perceived need to educate new voters and safeguard Britain’s international competitiveness. In 1880, legislation introduced compulsory education for 5-10 year-olds, and later bills provided further funding.
2. Representation of the People Act (1884)
The franchise was extended again to give voting rights to householders and lodgers in counties who had been resident for at least 12 months. Two thirds of men were therefore entitled to vote, meaning that for the first time, large numbers of working class citizens were enfranchised. The Act strengthened the influence of the House of Commons, who claimed to govern by the ‘will of the people’. Along with the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885, which sought to make seats roughly the same size for the first time, the 1884 Representation of the People Act came to be known as the Third Reform Act. The widening of democratic participation was key to the development of political parties with distinct policy offerings, and set the stage for needed social reforms in the 20th century.
1. Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807)
Although it did not abolish slavery itself (see earlier), the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was a major breakthrough for the abolitionist movement. It was made possible by anti-slavery campaigners such as the Quakers and MP William Wilberforce, but also protests by slaves themselves. These groups had fought to highlight the evils of the slave trade since the 18th century. Various other events conspired to make the legislation possible, including the Act of Union which introduced 100 Irish MPs to parliament, most of whom favoured abolition. The Act abolished the slave trade across the British Empire and was passed by 283 votes to 16. It was a major victory for progressive changed and foreshadowed the gradual liberalisation of the century.
If you missed the first of the two posts, you can read it here. We’d like to produce a new tea towel using one of the events on this list as its theme. Which do you think deserves commemorating? Let us know in the comments below.