Lighting the Torch of Liberty
: The French Revolution and Chartist Political Culture, 1838-1852

  • Jacob Dengate

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


From 1838 until the end of the European Revolutions in 1852, the French Revolution provided Chartists with a repertoire of symbolism that Chartists would deploy in their activism, histories, and literature to foster a sense of collective consciousness, define a democratic world-view, and encourage internationalist sentiment. Challenging conservative notions of the revolution as a bloody and anarchic affair, Chartists constructed histories of 1789 that posed the era as a romantic struggle for freedom and nationhood analogous to their own, and one that was deeply entwined with British history and national identity. During the 1830s, Chartist opposition to the New Poor Law drew from the gothic repertoire of the Bastille to frame inequality in Britain. The workhouse ‘bastile’ was not viewed simply as an illegitimate imposition upon Britain, but came to symbolise the character of class rule. Meanwhile, Chartist newspapers also printed fictions based on the French Revolution, inserting Chartist concerns into the narratives, and their histories of 1789 stressed the similarity between France on the eve of revolution and Britain on the eve of the Charter. During the 1840s Chartist internationalism was contextualised by a framework of thinking about international politics constructed around the Revolutions of 1789 and 1830, while the convulsions of Continental Europe during 1848 were interpreted as both a confirmation of Chartist historical discourse and as the opening of a new era of international struggle. In the Democratic Review (1849-1850), the Red Republican (1850), and The Friend of the People (1850-1852), Chartists like George Julian Harney, Helen Macfarlane, William James Linton, and Gerald Massey, along with leading figures of the radical émigrés of 1848, characterised ‘democracy’ as a spirit of action and a system of belief. For them, the democratic heritage was populated by a diverse array of figures, including the Apostles of Jesus, Martin Luther, the romantic poets, and the Jacobins of 1793. The ‘Red Republicanism’ that flourished during 1848-1852 was sustained by the historical viewpoints arrived at during the Chartist period generally. Attempts to define a ‘science’ of socialism was as much about correcting the misadventures of past ages as it was a means to realise the promise announced by the ‘Springtime of the Peoples’.
Date of Award2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorPaul O'Leary (Supervisor) & Peter Lambert (Supervisor)


  • Chartism
  • radicalism
  • press
  • newspapers
  • Victorian
  • nineteenth century
  • George Julian Harney
  • Ernest Jones
  • Gerald Massey
  • Helen MacFarlane
  • Marx
  • Communist Manifesto
  • Northern Star
  • Red Republican
  • Revolutions of 1848
  • Poor Law
  • workhouse
  • Bastille
  • cultural transfer
  • transnational history
  • socialism
  • labour history
  • history from below
  • working class
  • Europe
  • France
  • Britain
  • popular politics
  • political philosophy

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