The letter from Browne to Tait:

The writer James Browne (1793-1841) engaged in correspondence with William Tait, the founder of the eponymous radical print Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, in 1835. Browne was infuriated at the proposed citizens’ dinner for the Irish Radical Daniel O’Connell that had been organized by the Edinburgh Citizens’ Society, of which Browne and Tait were both members. At first, I had simply assumed that Browne was against the dinner because – despite his presumably radical sympathies due to his association with Tait – he did not agree with the “extreme opinions” that would be conveyed, presumably by O’Connell, throughout the course of the evening. However, upon reflection I think there is a more nuanced reading as to why Browne adopts such a hostile tone.

He evidently expresses frustration that the dinner would inevitably be reduced to a “Trades’ Dinner” . Post-Catholic Emancipation in 1829, O’Connell moved to push for the repeal of the Acts of the Union. Such Acts, which had passed thirty years prior, ruled that Ireland was to hold no legislative independence and would be instead be represented in the UK Parliament by 100 Irish MPs. For O’Connell, the issue of repeal had political connotations, being a manifestation of British hegemony that had to be banished. But, although the Trade Unions also supported repeal, their objectives were not political like O’Connell, but socio-economic; they desired the restoration of Dublin as the “economic paradise [it had been]…. twenty years before the act of union” . Thus, although O’Connell saw the success of Catholic Emancipation as a major prerequisite for the chances of repeal, the artisans of Dublin lamented “what advantage is it to the tradesmen of Ireland that thirteen hundred situations have been thrown open by emancipation? . . . Has it given a loaf of bread to any of the thousand starving families of the poor operatives of this city?” .

Tensions between them came to a head in 1833 when, agitated by the resounding defeat of the repeal motion in April of that year, O’Connell moved to delay the repeal question, clashing with the Unions who wished to continue to push for repeal. With O’Connell’s abandonment of the issue, the common ground of repeal that they shared had been lost . Indeed, O’Connell had not dropped the repeal issue, nor had he spoken out against it. Rather, he had simply shelved the issue “to avoid the coercive measures he felt would be the inevitable consequence of a renewed repeal campaign” . But the Trade Unions saw this as a major betrayal on the part of O’Connell. This could have in turn caused O’Connell to feel frustration at the Unions’ unwavering championing of repeal when he so clearly saw the tactical benefits of pausing the campaign.

By 1835, hostility between the Unions and O’Connell had been solidified, animosity which may have been further exacerbated by the Lichfield House Compact . Tensions would eventually boil over in an 1838 public debate where by the end O’Connell was in “quite actual physical danger” . Therefore, it could be that the negative connotations that Browne surrounds his use of the word “extreme” are not because he was necessarily anti-radical or that he does not support the work of O’Connell, but instead simply that the issue of repeal had become too convoluted and partisan for any civilised or meaningful discussion. Moreover, since both O’Connell and the Unions were united on the side of reform, Browne may have been exasperated at the in-fighting that hindered the progression of the campaign – with O’Connell’s dropping of support, the movement was necessarily checked since the Trades Political Union had been flooded by O’Connell’s middle-class followers four years prior and consequently “lacked an organ of expression” of their own. Hence, it appears likely that Browne’s opposition to O’Connell attending the citizens’ dinner was not a result of O’Connell’s radical status, but instead a protest against what the issue of Irish political independence had become.

‘The Spirit of the Time’:

Enclosed alongside Browne’s letter to Tait was a short essay entitled ‘The Spirit of the Time’. I initially thought that this was an essay written by Browne in 1835, but in later research I realised that this was in fact a section of an entry in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1832 (indeed, as the article within the issue does not have an author, it is entirely possible that Browne had written the whole entry and selected the first half of the article to send to Tait). Crammed onto one side of parchment, the piece charts the birth and spread of the radical movement that had grown increasingly prominent both in Scotland and wider Europe by his time of writing. The essay begins by asserting that the “change [that] has now come over the Spirit of the Time” cannot be ignored. Rather, “mighty questions have been stirred, deep interests have been created, vast masses of men… have suddenly begun to heave to and fro with the force of a newly-inspired animation… all things are coming new” . The essay’s objective, as Browne explicates, is to map these clear changes that the Spirit of the Time has undergone, and “what consequences are likely to follow from this mighty revolution of opinion” .

The first chapter in this epoch of radical thought was instigated by the American War of Independence, as “the first volley of musketry [that] was fired at the bosoms of the colonists… had its origin in… a great principle of humble liberty, namely that taxation without representation is tyranny” . The founding ideals of democracy and equity that characterised the American Enlightenment, which in turn provided the spark for the American Revolutionary War, were heavily influenced by the earlier writings of the Radical Whigs, a section of 18th Century British Politicians and political commentators who supported American Republicanism. They also proposed a series of political reforms in Britain; although meaningful reform in Britain would not arrive until approximately eighty years after their dissolvement, the seed was sown. Indeed, Browne emphasises that the material success – that is, the ejection of the British – of the American Revolution was not in and of itself the patriots’ greatest achievement. Rather, what had an even greater impact was that the Americans’ victory gave “a new impulse to the human mind… [and] roused it from their lethargy in which it had sunk” . The notion of ‘public opinion’, separate from the ruling ideology of the hegemonic classes or power, began to gather strength. Furthermore, it rightly notes that the American victory in 1783 produced a powerful backlash in Britain, but that this simply “minister[ed] to that new-born appetite which was destined to grow by what it was fed on” . In order to denunciate the American triumph, the British Parliament necessarily had to confirm the existence of a new Spirit of the Time which had compelled the American subjects to take action.

The “revolutionary spirit” that had imbued the Americans to defy their British oppressors subsequently spread to France, where “misrule had reached that point where endurance ends and resistance begins” . Much like in America, the French viewed the hierarchical status quo not with contentment but with “indignation and disgust” . And although the nations of Europe “threatened to blot her out as a nation from the map of Europe” and destroy the newly-formed French First Republic, Browne notes that “victory followed fast on the heels of victory” , its termination only occurring at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. Yet, although this initial republic ceased to exist post-1804, the contempt towards the “profligacy of an overgrown hierarchy” that the French Revolution embodied did not. What followed in France for the next sixty-six years was an age of tumult that pitted the radical legacy of the French Revolution against the repeated attempts of the Monarchy to re-assert itself at the highest echelon of French society. The struggle concluded in 1870 with the formation of the French Third Republic after Napoleon III’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

But what is particularly significant about Browne’s inclusion of the piece is why he felt such retrospection was necessary in the first place. The reason for its original composition and inclusion within Tait’s was the sense of crisis that imbued the political atmosphere in April 1832, but it remains significant that Browne chose to attach the piece to his letter. For instance, Burgh Reform in Scotland had also been achieved the year after the 1832 Reform Act, with fellow movements such as the Irish Repeal campaign having undergone major periods of turbulence by 1835. The time of Browne’s correspondence with Tait also coincided with the initial stirrings of the Chartist movement. In turn, by reraising ‘The Spirit of the Time’ Browne may have wished to emphasise both the continual importance of championing the name of the common man instead of an exclusive sect of the population, and the need to view prior events as part of an interconnected timeline of progressive and democratic thought rather than as an exercise in nostalgia. Yet, alongside this, I also feel that there is something to be said about the particular relevance of its attachment with Browne’s letter to Tait. As previously discussed, it is clear that Browne expresses deep frustration within his letter to Tait about the Edinburgh’s Citizens’ Society’s invitation to O’Connell. By including ‘The Spirit of the Time’ within his correspondence with Tait, I think that Browne aimed to remind Tait about the impact of effective reform, and thus the need to endorse such movements when they require support and to distance themselves from causes which lack efficacy. For Browne, the issue of Union repeal had become tarnished and stagnated by infighting, and was therefore seen by him as a campaign that had lost validity within the push for reform. Moreover, Browne evidently felt that the common aim of change had been seconded by partisan objectives that, although may have had the interests of reformist progression at heart, detracted away from the sense of unity and the collective Radical spirit that was so clear within ‘The Spirit of the Time’. Since the Irish repeal movement lacked the spirit that existed within ‘The Spirit’, Browne may have been reminding Tait of the importance of this element’s presence within reform movements and the individuals involved within them, indirectly urging him to rescind O’Connell’s invitation.