Thomas Spence was one of the leading English revolutionaries of the late 18th Century. His tracts, such as The Rights of Man (Spence was, perhaps, the first to use the phrase) and The Rights of Infants, along with his utopian visions of ‘Crusonia’ and ‘Spensonia’, were the most far-reaching radical statements of the period. Although sometimes hailed as England’s ‘first modern socialist’, Spence is not easily corralled by later ideologies. He was a mortal enemy of tyranny and what he called ‘giantism’ of all kinds. Keith Armstrong, Chair of the Thomas Spence Trust, will consider Spence’s ideas and their relevance to the present day.
Steve Poole traces the fate, after Spence’s death, of this alternative current in English radicalism. The best known histories of English radicalism and democracy explore the struggle for universal suffrage and the reform of parliament. According to these accounts, from the time of the French revolution to the passing of the collapse of Chartism in 1848, the popular radical movement argued, petitioned and campaigned for a more equal share of parliamentary power as a basis on which to build a just society. In so doing, it emphasised radical respectability, moral seriousness and readiness for conventional ‘citizenship’. But some were not so sure. Spenceans argued on the contrary that without the common ownership of land as a pre-requisite, the electoral franchise would remain open to manipulation by the economically powerful. Was anybody listening?
Steve Poole is a lecturer in History at the University of West of England. He teaches the history of popular movements in Britain from the mid 18th to the mid 19th centuries and “feels an irrational attachment to the Romantic enthusiasm of the English Jacobins”. His book The Politics of Regicide in England,1760-1850 has just been published.
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