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I received your last letter dated 14 of Decr and am sorry to observe by it as well as by the public prints, the distracted state of the Country and I am afraid it will not be much better untill our goverment picks a quarrel with some power or other for altho the War Taxes is high yet in war time trade is general[ly] brisk and the people has something to do and other things to think of than quarrle with their own goverment.

David McCowan, Port Spain, Trinidad, to his brother James in Scotland
March 23, 1817


The struggle for equity and fairness in western society goes back over a thousand years. We seem today to take for granted our right to vote for representation in decision-making -- poor voter turnout is an unfortunate fact at many polling stations in Canada. Many of us seem to have forgotten that voting was once a privilege held only by the rich and powerful. Our forebears worked hard and made many sacrifices to give us the "right" to vote that we should now cherish -- and eagerly exercise.

In this section of my web site, I'll include some information illustrating the evolution of democracy and democratic principles that we now enjoy. The troubles alluded to above by David McCowan in his 1817 letter to a brother in Scotland climaxed in 1820 with outright revolt in some quarters of Britain. At that point, ordinary folk could not vote. Only the wealthy had any legal say in the operation of the country and direction of society and economy. Civil disobedience seemed like the only option to some people to remedy the social problems of the time.

The Great Reform Bill of 1832 was certainly a victorious turning point -- this bill granted voting rights to a significant number of people for the first time. Daniel Meikle's detailed account of the Reform Bill Procession in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, is certainly unique. It underscores the captivating mania that prevailed over the issue. Ordinary Scots went on to contribute enormously to the development of western democracy through their various institutions and actions.

In the Canadian federal election on June 28 2004, be sure to cast your thoughtful and sincere ballot.

The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #6

The Mania of Radical Reform, 1820

Some of the media in Lanarkshire in 1820 was decidedly Tory and anti-reform:

Above all things the mania of Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, Election by Ballot: the dangerous and alarming spirit of insubordination and principles of disloyalty and infidelity, imbibed by some, especially in the manufacturing [particularly weaving] districts, will be exposed with freedom, and every effort will be made to restrain those who have adopted such opinions, and to prevent them, who are of sound principles from being contaminated.

Beginning with "Having promised in the Prospectus which we have issued [above], to expose the absurdities of Radical Reformers", the very next article in this paper enquired into "the origin, nature, and extent of the mania of radical reform". Written less than a month after the Strathaven Radicals' treasonous but uneventful march, the article concluded:

A very large proportion of the operatives in the cotton trade, and of the colliers are either thorough-paced Radicals, or deeply tinctured with their principles of coercive reform. And when we consider how numerous these classes are, in and around Glasgow, we may easily perceive that if these people had leaders, and the means of war, they might do much mischief: not to the Government, but to private property... It will therefore be necessary still to keep a watchful eye... and not to be lulled into security by the representations of those who would make us believe that Radicalism is now completely eradicated.

Equality, Riots, Police and Justice

The radical rising at Strathaven had been prompted by a proclamation posted in many towns and villages in west central Scotland in early April, 1820:

Friends and Countrymen,

Roused from that torpid state in which we have been sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled, from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our Petitions for redress, to assert our Rights, at the hazard of our lives; and proclaim to the world the real motives, which (if not misrepresented by designing men, would have United all ranks), have reduced us to take up Arms for the redress of our Common Grievances... Our principles are few and founded on the basis of our Constitution, which were purchased with the Dearest Blood of our Ancestors, and which we swear to transmit to posterity unsullied, or Perish in the Attempt -- Equality of Rights (not of Property) is the object for which we contend; and which we consider as the only security for our Liberties and Lives...

The proclamation urged the military to join the radical cause.

In May 1820, there was this report on several local trials of rioters:

Charles Fitzpatrick and James Tavern were accused of being in company with a wicked and seditious mob, brought together by a placard that was posted up on the first April last, and of having wickedly and feloniously attacked Mr. Thomas Grahame, Jun. writer in Glasgow, a private in the Glasgow Yeomanry, and Robt. A. McKay, cornet of said corps, and pelting them with stones...

Lord Succoth then sentenced Fitzpatrick to 18 and Tavern to 12 months' confinement. John Wilson and James Smith, found Guilty of rioting and assaulting the military, were brought up to receive sentence. Lord Succoth suggested to his learned brother on the bench that, from the state of society in Scotland, particularly in the West of Scotland, it would be necessary to show such people as pannels [the accused], and indeed all classes, that tendency to rioting would be checked in the most decisive manner, and that insulting the military would be met with that punishment it so justly merited... At a time when the military force was securing and carrying off to Jail a committee of men calling themselves Radicals -- a set of men who wanted to have a Radical Reform, Universal Suffrage, and Annual Parliaments -- a Reform, that though it would make the rich poor, would never make the poor rich or happy, the soldiers were forced to do what they did: they were executing a legal warrant from the Sheriff, and were compelled to execute it. If they had refused -- independently of the breach which such conduct would have made in the civil law -- they would have had to answer with their lives to the military law. The attack was therefore foolish, unprincipled and inhuman... It had been stated in the course of the trial of the pannels by the best possible evidence that it was with difficulty and required all their attention that the officers were enabled to prevent the men under their command from using their arms in their own defence...

The other letters and editorials above are from the Clydesdale Journal, 1820-21, as cited in a draft of Catching Up With the Market Economy
The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #6


PS Dec. 29 2012: 

Profound socio-economic and democratic reforms eventually came about in Britain, including the right to vote for all adult citizens and the right to collective bargaining for ordinary workers. These gains by the working class did not, as was feared in 1820, “make the rich poor”.  As a consequence of the sacrifices made by early reformers and visionaries, recent generations of the middle class in western society have enjoyed a relative affluence. In Ontario, Bill 115 could begin to unravel democracy (and fairness), as we have come to know it.