The Right Honorable Baronet has said there has been no word of
recantation. The Right Honorable Baronet speaks truth. There has
been no recantation, neither will there be. You have no right to ask
me for any recantation. You have no right to ask me for anything. If
I am legally disqualified, lay the case before the courts. When you
ask me to make a statement, you are guilty of impertinence to me, of
treason to the traditions of this House, and of impeachment of the
liberties of the people. I beg you now, do not plunge me into a
struggle I would shun. The law gives me no remedy if the House
decides against me. Do not mock at the constituencies. If you place
yourself above the law, you leave me no course save lawless
agitation, instead of reasonable pleading. It is easy to begin such
a strife, but none knows how it would end. You think I am an
obnoxious man, and that I have no one on my side. If that be so,
then the more reason that this House, grand in the strength of its
centuries of liberty, should have now that generosity in dealing
with one who tomorrow may be forced into a struggle for public
opinion against it.--Bradlaugh to the House of Commons
Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll and Charles Bradlaugh form a trinity of
names inseparably linked. The memory of Paine was for many years
covered beneath the garbage of prevarication. In order to find the
man, we had to excavate for him. Happily, with the help of the
Reverend Moncure D. Conway, we found him.
Ingersoll's life lies open to us, and the honest, loving, and gentle
nature of the man is beyond dispute. The pious pedants who tried to
traduce him were self-indicted. No one now even thinks to answer
them. The man who said, "In a world where death is, there is no time
to hate," needs no defense. We smile. With Bradlaugh it is the same.
His biography in two volumes, by his daughter, is a very human
document. The work is worthy of comparison with that most excellent
book, the life of Huxley by his son.
The essence of good biography lies largely in indiscretion. This
loving daughter's tribute to her father tells things which some might
say do no honor to anybody. Quite true, but these are the
corroborating things which inform us that the book is truth.
Charles Bradlaugh performed for England the same service that Robert
Ingersoll did for America. Both presented the minority report. Through
their influence the Church was able to renounce the devil and all his
These men were both born in the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty-three,
about a month apart. In many ways they were very much alike. In
physique they were heroic; both were lawyers; both were natural
Bradlaugh, however, began his radical career before he was of age,
while Ingersoll was nearly forty before he set aside diplomacy and
ceased wooing bronchitis.
Charles Bradlaugh was the first child of a worthy clerk married to a
housemaid. His father never earned more than two guineas a week. All
these parents ever did for their son was to supply him with physical
life, and teach him by antithesis. No trace can be found that he in
any mental characteristic resembled either. Parents are evidently
people who are used for a purpose by a Something.
Bradlaugh's parents were wedded to the established order, and never
doubted the literal inspiration of the Scriptures. They also believed
in the divine origin of the prayer-book, a measure of credulity which,
although commendable, is, I believe, not required. These parents were
severe, exacting, imperious--not bad nor exactly cruel--simply
"consistent." They believed that man was a worm of the dust, and stood
by the traditions. They believed in the dogma of total depravity and
lived up to it.
A bundle of old clothes sent yearly from a rich cousin in Kent was an
epoch. Sugar in the house was out of the question, and once when the
rich cousin in Kent, who was an omnibus-inspector, sent a pound of
brown sugar in the pocket of an old coat, the sweets suddenly
vanished. Charles was accused and stubbornly denied the theft. He was
then punished with the handy strap for both the denial and the
larceny. Later, it turned out that a little girl next door stole the
sugar, and when Charles refused to inform on her, she informed on
herself. Then the boy was again whipped because he had not informed on
the girl. Charles got all of the disgrace and none of the sugar.
Charles was sent to a "ragged school," and became, at the mature age
of ten, so exact a penman that he almost rivaled his father, who could
write the Lord's Prayer on the back of a postage-stamp. At this
school, beside getting an education, Charles got pedagogic scars on
his body which ten years later, when he enlisted in the army, were
noted in the physical description.
The daughter of Bradlaugh has in her possession a beautiful motto from
Scripture done into antique text by the lad for his mother when the
boy was nine years old. All around the motto are flying birds penned
in pure Spencerian. The motto is this: "Then said Joab, I may not
tarry long with thee. And he took three darts in his hand and thrust
them through the heart of Absalom while he was yet alive in the midst
of the oak. And ten young men of Joab's smote Absalom and slew him."
This was before the art of working mottoes with worsted in perforated
cardboard had been perfected.
When ten years of age Charles was taken from school and hired out as
an office-boy at five shillings a week, the money being paid to the
father and duly used for the support of the family. It is good to see,
though, that at that early day the expense-account was made to serve
its legitimate use. When the boy had bundles to deliver and was given
money for 'bus-fare, he walked and kept the fare. The bridge-toll was
a half-penny, and by climbing aboard of a wagon this was saved. To be
back on time he would run. He became an expert in catching on 'buses
and riding on the axle of cabs, well out of reach of the driver's
whip. With the money so saved he bought penny tracts on politics,
history and religion. One day he was sent to deliver a bundle to Mark
Marsden, a writer and publisher. Charles did not know the man, but in
his hand, all unconsciously, he carried a tract written by Marsden.
Nothing interests an author like a copy of his own amusing works.
Marsden gave the boy two pats on the head, a bun, a half-crown and
three penny pamphlets on political economy.
Charles went away stepping high, but his tongue was so paralyzed with
surprise and joy that he forgot to thank the man. Twenty years after
he remembered the transaction vividly--it was the first real human
kindness that had ever come his way. He told of it, standing on the
same platform with Marsden and speaking to two thousand people.
Marsden had forgotten the incident--happy Marsden, who gave out love
and joy as he journeyed and made no notes. This little story proves
two things: That authors are not wholly bad, and that kindness to a
boy is a good investment. Boys grow to be men--at least some do, and I
trust it will not be denied that all men were once boys. Bradlaugh, to
the day of his death, was always kind to boys. He realized that with
them he was dealing with soul-stuff, and that Destiny awaited just
around the corner.
When Charles was fourteen years old he had gravitated to the cashier's
desk, and his pay was twelve shillings a week.
He was large for his age, and the life of the streets had sharpened
his wits, so he was old for his years. He was studious and very
religious, as children struggling with adolescence often are. Sundays
were sacred to church, morning and evening, and the spare hours were
given over to reading the lives of the martyrs. Only on weekdays did
he read history or political tracts. In Sunday School he was a very
Then comes in one, the Reverend J. G. Packer, incumbent of Saint
Peter's, who lives in history only because he entered into a quarrel
with this boy.
Young Bradlaugh was preparing for confirmation; he could say the
catechism backward and forward, and he also knew Bible history from
Genesis to Revelation. But he could not reconcile certain portions of
Bible history with our belief in an all-loving, all-wise and ever-just
God. So he wrote to his pastor a long and respectful letter in precise
and exact Spencerian, asking for light.
Now, the Reverend J. G. Packer regarded interrogation as proof of
depravity, and straightway sent the letter to the boy's father. At the
same time he suspended the youth for three months from Sunday School,
denouncing him before the school as atheistical, all this in the
interests of discipline. These tactics of coercion were the rule a
hundred years ago, and the Reverend J. G. Packer had simply lost his
reckoning as to longitude and time. There was a violent scene between
father and son, and the boy being too big to chastise was simply
handed a few pages of Billingsgate.
At this time Bonner's Fields was a great place for open-air meetings.
The custom of public speaking in London parks still continues, and on
any pleasant Sunday afternoon one can hear all kinds of orthodox and
heretical vagaries defended on the turf. Young Bradlaugh took to the
open-air meetings, and lifted up his voice in praise, feeling the
usual stimulus and joyous uplift that goes with martyrdom. After his
own orthodox service was over, he sought out the opposition and tried
to silence the infidels in debate. One of these infidels, in pity for
the boy's innocence and ignorance, loaned him a copy of Paine's "Age
of Reason." Up to this time he had never heard of Paine. Now he began
to study him, and he began by reading his life. From this he gleaned
the fact that Paine had suffered for conscience sake and had been
driven out of England, just as he, himself, had been driven out of the
The three months' suspension having expired, young Bradlaugh was
invited to come back into the fold. But he did not come. He had been
learning things. Paine and persecution had sharpened his mind. I do
not believe that Packer drove Bradlaugh into atheism, but I do believe
that he hastened the process by about twenty years. Bradlaugh did not
have the quality of mind that could ever have been encysted by
Boyhood was being left behind. He had joined a Free-thinkers' Club,
which met at a coffeehouse kept by Mrs. Richard Carlile, who had come
up to London, alone, from the country, and published a little magazine
devoted to the rights of woman. She had kept up the fight for freedom
for a score of years. Poverty and calumny could not subdue her. She
was bordering on fifty, and spoke in the parks, to all and any who
would listen, scorning to take up a collection. Her private character
was beyond reproach. Indeed, her namesake, Tammas the Titan, who
spelled his name in a different way, speaks of her as one "insultingly
virtuous." And so the Reverend J.G. Packer discovered that young
Bradlaugh was "loitering at the coffeehouse of that Jezebel, the
Carlile woman." Straightway he wrote a letter to young Bradlaugh,
giving him three days in which to return to the church, renouncing all
infidel beliefs, or his employers would be informed of his habits, in
which case his cashiership would be taken from him.
This letter was evidently the joint work of the boy's parents and the
busy and unctuous clergyman. The only trouble was that their plan
worked too well. The boy, believing that it meant the loss of his
position, was desperate. He waited until two days had expired, and
then on the morning of the third boldly resigned his position, and
taking his scanty effects left home forever. Thus began that lifelong
fight for freedom which ended only with his death.
* * * * *
And so we find Charles Bradlaugh absolutely severed from his parents.
He used to walk up and down past the home that was once his, but his
sisters were forbidden, on pain of being turned into the streets, to
speak to him.
That he suffered terribly, there is no doubt; but that a fine,
sustaining pride was his, is equally true. Sorrow is never quite all
sorrow, and most funerals carry with them a dash of consoling
satisfaction for the mourners.
Young Bradlaugh now began to concentrate on his books--he felt sure
that he had a mission. He became a waiter at a coffeehouse, then a
clerk, next a salesman; but the reputation of being an infidel follow
him, and he could not disprove the charge. In fact, I do not think he
tried to, for on Sundays he was at Hyde Park lecturing on temperance
and saying unsavory things about the clergy on account of their
indifference concerning the real needs of the people.
A teetotaler in England then was almost as much of a curiosity as in
the days of Franklin. Young Bradlaugh seemed to possess all the
heresies. He became a vegetarian, rented a room for three shillings a
week, and boarded himself on sixpence a day. Cooking is a matter of
approbation and emulation, and he who cooketh unto himself alone is on
the road to dyspepsia.
This long, lanky youth, intent on reforming the world in the matter of
food, drink and theological diet, was six feet two, and weighed
exactly ninety-nine pounds in the shade. He wore a chimney-pot hat, a
tight-fitting, long, black coat, and lavender spats. Fasting and study
had given him a visage like the ghost in "Hamlet," and gotten him
where no man would hire him.
Then it was that hunger forced him into a recruiting-office, no doubt
aided by the specious argument that he wanted to teach temperance to
Tommy Atkins. The recruiting-officer gazed at the apparition and sent
for a surgeon. This surgeon sent for another, and both went over the
skeleton, tapping, listening, prodding and counting. "All he needs is
food and work," said surgeon Number One, giving the subject a final
poke with his pudgy forefinger.
So Private Bradlaugh was sworn in, and that night shipped to Dublin,
where uniforms were to be provided. Very naturally, the chimney-pot
hat did not survive the voyage, the rim being smashed down around his
neck for a 'kerchief. The clerical coat also soon looked the worse for
wear; and a copy of Euclid as well as books by David Hume served for
It was hard, but all a part of life, and young Bradlaugh took his
lesson. We know this because in just six months his regiment was
stationed near the storied village of Donnybrook, and Bradlaugh was
one of sixteen selected to attend the Fair. This committee did not got
to the Fair armed with feather dusters.
Bradlaugh now weighed one hundred sixty, and had proved his prowess
with the shillalah. It was the unwritten law at Donnybrook that no
soldiers should be allowed to attend the Fair. The managers, however,
still continued to sell tickets to soldiers, yet to keep the
enterprise from being wiped out of existence, only sixteen soldiers
from each regiment were allowed to attend on any single day.
Bradlaugh's reach and height saved him, and the motto, "Wherever you
see a head, hit it," did not disturb him, since his headpiece was well
above high-water mark.
Regular food, regular work and regular sleep did Bradlaugh a world of
good. He never much believed in war, but the idea of the Government
giving her male citizens a little compulsory physical training always
appealed to him.
Three years of soldier life did not supply Bradlaugh any bad habits,
and whether he influenced Tommy Atkins in following the straight and
narrow path is still a problem.
On pleasant Sundays it was the rule that the regiment should be
marched to church. On one occasion a certain clergyman had excused
himself from explaining a passage of Scripture on the ground that
soldiers could not understand it, anyway. This brought a letter from
Private Bradlaugh, wherein he explained that particular passage to the
pastor, and also revealed the fact that a soldier might know quite as
much as a preacher.
The next Sunday, when the clergyman referred to the letter and in
scathing tones rebuked the sender, three hundred soldiers unhooked
their sabers and dropped them on the stone floor. The din broke up
the service. Very shortly after, as punishment, the regiment was sent
to a barracks in a region that lacked religious advantages.
In the absence of a chaplain Private Bradlaugh was allowed each Sunday
to address the men "on some moral theme."
This continued until complaint was made to the home office, when there
came a curt order forbidding "any public talk by Private Bradlaugh or
others on the subject of politics or religion."
Bradlaugh's three years of army life held back his mental processes
and allowed his body to develop. On the other hand, he had been exiled
from society, so he idealized things, seeing them with the eye of
imagination rather than beholding them as they actually were.
Sometimes this is well, and sometimes not. When Charles Bradlaugh,
aged twenty, married Susannah Hooper, some people said it was a
"lovely wedding." Miss Hooper had social station, while Bradlaugh only
had prospects. The bride was handsome, vivacious, witty, pink and
Never was a man more beset by unkind Fate than Bradlaugh. His wife's
intellect was merely a surface indication; she cared nothing for his
ideals, and all of his love for truth was for her a mockery. She
sought to lead him into conventional lines, to have him renounce his
peculiar views and join the church. His fond dreams of educating her
slid into disarrangement, and inside of a year he found himself
mentally absolutely alone. Five years went by and three children had
been born to them.
Bradlaugh was still preaching temperance in the parks; and as if to
defy his precepts, his wife took to strong drink, so that when he
returned home he often found her cared for by the neighbors, who in
pity had come in to protect the children.
That peculiar English custom of women drinking at public bars helped
along the work of undoing. It is a sorry tale, save for the devotion
of the two girls and their brother for their father and his love for
them. The mother was only a mother in name. She became a confirmed and
helpless victim of alcoholism, and lingered on for some years,
existing in a sanitarium or cared for by a special attendant.
* * * * *
After his marriage Bradlaugh entered a lawyer's office. He soon
became head clerk to the firm. His natural ability for public speaking
made him a good trial advocate, and then he had a physical ability
that rendered him especially valuable where seizures were to be made
or evictions effected.
The practise of law then, it seems, was not at a very high mark. Wise
men nowadays try to keep out of court. They know that in a lawsuit
both sides lose, also that a bad compromise is better than a good
lawsuit. But forty years ago, to "have the law on him" was quite the
common way of dealing with your enemy, instead of forgetting the wrong
that had been done you, and leaving the man to Nemesis.
We hear of a certain case where one of Bradlaugh's clients had built a
brick house on rented ground, without the legal precaution of taking a
ninety-nine-year lease. Naturally, the rapacious landlord--for all
landlords are rapacious, I am told--ordered the renter out at the end
of the year.
The renter then demanded that the landlord should pay him for his
building. This was very foolish on the part of the renter, and
revealed a woeful ignorance of common law. Bradlaugh was retained and
interviewed the obdurate landlord--for all landlords, I am told, are
obdurate as well as rapacious. But all was in vain.
That night Bradlaugh and his client got together a hundred good men
and true and carried the house away from chimney to cornerstone,
leaving nothing but the cellar.
This legal move was very much like that of Robert Ingersoll, who had a
railroad company lay half a mile of track through one of the streets
of Peoria, between midnight and sun-up, and then let the opposing
party carry the case to the courts.
Ingersoll's interest in the world of thought cost him the Governorship
of the State of Illinois. Bradlaugh's interest along similar lines
cost him the foremost position at the English bar. The man had
presence, persistence, courage, and that rapid, ready intellect which
commands respect with judge, jury and opposition. Before he was
twenty-five he knew history, mythology, poetry, economics and theology
in a way that few men do who spend a lifetime in research.
Public speaking opens up the mental pores as no other form of
intellectual exercise does. It inspires, stimulates, and calls out the
reserves. Perhaps the best result of oratory is in that it reveals a
man's ignorance to himself and shows him how little he knows, thus
urging him to reinforce his stores and prepare for a siege.
All this, of course, does not apply to clergymen whose efforts are
purely "ex parte," and where a reply on the part of the pew is
considered an offense.
Wendell Phillips advised the young oratorical aspirant to take "a
course of mobs." Most certainly Bradlaugh did, and then he continued
to take post-graduate courses. His Donnybrook experiences were simply
The crowds at Hyde Park who came to hear him speak were not actuated
wholly by a desire to hear the answer to Pilate's question.
Bradlaugh had his own corner in the Park where he spoke on Sunday
mornings, when the weather was pleasant. At this meeting he invited
replies, so the proceeding usually took the form of a debate. And he
had a way of enlivening in a similar manner the service of his friends
the enemy. Often the audience, for pure love of mischief, would start
pushing, and two hundred hoodlums would overrun the meeting. There was
no special violence about it--it is very English, you know.
Occasionally it happens yet in Hyde Park, and the true London Bobby,
who never sees anything he does not want to see, allows the beefeaters
to crowd, jostle, and push themselves tired. It was really all very
funny unless you were caught in the pushing crowd, then all you could
do was to keep on your feet and go with the merry mass. But the
attendance at Hyde Park meetings was increasing, and in the rough-
house, at times, some one would fall and be trampled upon.
So an order was issued from Scotland Yard that all public speaking in
the parks should cease between ten o'clock in the morning and two in
the afternoon. This was during church hours, for church attendance had
begun to fall off very perceptibly.
Bradlaugh thought the order was without due process of law--that the
parks belonged to the people, and that public speaking in the open was
not an abuse of the people's rights. More people than ever flocked to
Hyde Park on the Sunday set for the fray. Bradlaugh arranged that a
dozen or more of his colleagues should begin to speak at the same time
in different parts of the park. The police began to charge and the
crowds began to push. Then the police used their truncheons. Two
policemen seized Bradlaugh. He politely asked them to keep their hands
off, and when they did not he showed them his quality by wresting
their truncheons from them, and flinging them to the cheering crowd.
He then bumped the heads of the officers together, inciting riot, so
ran the records.
This all sounds rather tragic, and I am sorry to believe that
Bradlaugh rather enjoyed it. No one man physically was a match for
him, and all men fall easy victims to their facility. The police did
not succeed on this occasion in arresting him; and it seems that there
was a sentiment abroad that made the Government hesitate about
arresting him on a bench warrant. A few years before, and Bradlaugh
would have been hanged, and there would 'a been an end on't. However,
several friends of the "Cause" were locked up, and the next day
Bradlaugh appeared in court to defend them. A truce was declared,
without renouncing the rights of free speech, and Bradlaugh agreed,
for the present, to cease holding public meetings.
The little weekly newspaper, "The Reasoner," published by Bradlaugh
was paying expenses, and there was a fair demand for his intellectual
wares. When he lectured in the provinces, there were the usual
warnings from pastors to their flocks which served to lessen the
advertising expenses of the lecture. Many of those warned not to go,
of course went, just to see how bad it was. Then occasionally halls
were closed against Bradlaugh on account of local pressure, and
lawsuits followed, for the "Iconoclast," while not believing much in
law, was yet so inconsistent as to invoke it. So all through life,
when he did not have a lawsuit on hand, existence seemed tasteless and
insipid. After he had lectured in a town, there was the usual
theological and oratorical pyrotechnics in reply, with sermons from
that indelicate text, "The fool saith in his heart, there is no God,"
and challenges that he should come back and fight it out. The number
of people who won tuppence worth of fame by replying to Ingersoll were
as naught compared to those who achieved fame by berating Bradlaugh.
In all of the opposition encountered by Ingersoll, his arguments were
never met with physical violence. Halls were locked against him,
newspapers denounced him, preachers thundered, but no mobs gathered to
hoot him down. Neither did he ever have to excuse himself in the midst
of a discourse, and go outside to stop a tin-pan serenade.
The Governor of Delaware, I believe, once notified Ingersoll that
Delaware had its whipping-post ready for his benefit when he came that
way. But the threat raised such a laugh that Delaware, for a time,
became a national joke. Later, a committee of Delaware citizens, as if
to make amends, invited Colonel Ingersoll to speak at Dover, and this
he did, also addressing the State Legislature.
Bradlaugh, however, for many years encountered ancient eggs,
vegetables, rocks, and pushing, jostling mobs, which on several
occasions swept him off the platform, but not before a few first
citizens had been tumbled pellmell into the orchestra. Let it here be
repeated that the sole offense of Bradlaugh was that he opposed the
Christian religion. The violence offered him was of necessity the work
of Christians, or those directly influenced and instigated by them.
Ingersoll's reference to the fact that the most zealous, orthodox
Christian State in the Union still had its whipping-post was a turn
of the argument which Bradlaugh effectively used. And so stingingly
true was his statement that violence and mob-rule in England were the
monopoly of organized religion, that the better element began to
discourage the hot-headed communicants instead of urging them on. So,
by Eighteen Hundred Seventy-six, Bradlaugh lectured throughout the
United Kingdom to large audiences of highly cultured people, who came
and gladly paid admission to hear him speak. Newspapers that had tried
either to smother him with silence or else denounce him without reason
began to report his speeches. Of course there was a little unkind
comment, too, but this became less frequent, and was mostly the work
of insignificant journals. One semi-religious paper of very small
caliber, in a suburb of London, where he lived, published a "roast"
that is worth repeating. It runs as follows:
We have in our midst the very Corypheus of infidelity, a compeer of
Holyoake, a man who thinks no more of the Bible than if it were an
old ballad--Colenso is a babe to him. This is a mighty man of valor,
I assure you--a very Goliath in his way. He used to go starring it
in the provinces, itinerating as a tuppenny lecturer on Tom Paine.
He has occasionally appeared in our Lecture-Hall. He, too, as well
as other conjurers, has thrown dust in our eyes and has made the
platform reel beneath the superincumbent weight of his balderdash
and blasphemy. The house he lives in is a sort of "Voltaire Villa."
The man and his "squaw" occupy it, united by a bond unblessed by
priest or parson. But that has an advantage: it will enable him to
turn his squaw out to grass, like his friend Charles Dickens, when
he feels tired of her, unawed by either the ghost or the successor
of Sir Cresswell Cresswell. Not having any particular scruples of
conscience about the Lord's Day, the gentleman worships the God of
Nature in his own way. He thinks "ratting" on a Sunday with a good
Scotch terrier is better than the "ranting" of a good Scotch divine--
for the Presbyterian element has latterly made its appearance among
us. Like the homeopathic doctor described in the sketch, this
gentleman combines a variety of professions "rolled into one." In
the provinces he is a star of the first magnitude, known by the name
of Moses Scoffer; in the city a myth known to his pals as Swear 'Em
Charley; and in our neighborhood he is a cipher--incog., but
perfectly understood. He contrives to eke out a tolerable
livelihood: I should say that his provincial blasphemies and his
city practise bring him a clear five hundred pounds a year at the
least. But is it not the wages of iniquity? He has a few followers
here, but only a few. He has recently done a very silly act; for he
has, all at once, converted "Voltaire Villa" into a glass house, and
the whole neighborhood can now see into the wigwam, where he dwells
in true Red Indian fashion with his squaw.
Had this clumsy libel appeared anywhere else than in a paper
circulated in the immediate neighborhood of his home, probably
Bradlaugh would have paid no attention to it. Other things quite as
bad had been said about him; but this time he simply put on his hat
and called on the writer, the Reverend Hugh McSorley. Just what
happened Bradlaugh never told, and about it McSorley was singularly
silent. It is feared, however, that at that time Bradlaugh had not
quite gotten rid of all his Christian virtues.
He carried a rattan cane, and his daughters thought that he went to
see McSorley with no intent of breaking the Bible injunction to spare
the rod. This we know, that the Reverend Mr. McSorley linked his name
with that of the Reverend J. G. Packer, and that McSorley's friends
paid Bradlaugh five hundred pounds, which money was promptly turned
over by Bradlaugh to the "Masonic Home" and "The Working-Men's
Relief," two charities that Bradlaugh ever remembered when he
realized on libel-suits. In the next issue of McSorley's paper
appeared the following apology:
The editor and proprietor of this newspaper desires to express his
extreme pain that the columns of a journal which has never before
been made the vehicle for reflection on private character should,
partly by inadvertence, and partly by a too-unhesitating reliance on
the authority and good faith of others, have contained a mischievous
and unfounded libel upon Mr. Charles Bradlaugh.
That Mr. Bradlaugh holds, and fearlessly expounds, theological
opinions entirely opposed to those of the editor and the majority of
our readers, is undoubtedly true, and Mr. Bradlaugh can not and does
not complain that his name is associated with Colenso, Holyoake or
Paine; but that he has offensively intruded those opinions in our
lecture-hall is not true. That his ordinary language on the platform
is balderdash and blasphemy is not true. That he makes a practise of
openly desecrating the Sabbath is not true. That he is known by the
name of Moses Scoffer, or Swear 'Em Charley, is not true. Nor is
there any foundation for the sneer as to his city practise, or for
the insinuations made against his conduct or character as a scholar
and a gentleman.
While making this atonement to Mr. Bradlaugh, the editor must
express his unfeigned sorrow that the name of Mrs. Bradlaugh should
have been introduced into the article in question, accompanied by a
suggestion calculated to wound her in the most vital part, conveying
as it does a reflection upon her honor and fair fame as a woman and
a wife. Mrs. Bradlaugh is too well known and too much respected to
suffer by such a calumny; but for the pain so heedlessly given to a
sensitive and delicate nature the editor offers this expression of
his profound and sincere regret.
When Bradlaugh was forty-one years of age he met Annie Besant. This
was in Eighteen Hundred Seventy-four, and a friendship grew up between
them that was of great benefit to both. Mrs. Besant was a woman of
much power, a clear, logical thinker, and a fluent and eloquent public
speaker. Her influence upon Bradlaugh was marked. After meeting her,
much of the storm and stress seemed to leave his nature, and he
acquired a poise and peace he had never before known.
They entered into a business partnership and together published the
"National Reformer." The exceptional quality of Mrs. Besant's mind
raised the status of the paper. Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant
were influencing their times, and were being influenced by their
times. Once they talked to mobs, now they had audiences.
It was through Mrs. Besant's influence that Bradlaugh was nominated
for Parliament in Northampton. Three successive elections he ran, and
was defeated, each defeat, however, being by a smaller majority than
before. Mrs. Besant campaigned the district and certainly introduced a
new element into politics. "I can not vote," she said, "but I trust I
can use a woman's privilege and influence men concerning the use of
the ballot for truth and right."
In Eighteen Hundred Eighty, Bradlaugh was elected with Mr. Labouchere,
whose views as to theology and the Established Church were one with
"Labby" took the oath quite as a matter of course, just as atheists
everywhere kiss the book in courts, it being to them but an antique
form of affirming that what they say will be truth. Had Bradlaugh
followed Labouchere's example, the most important chapter of his life
would not have been written. Bradlaugh asked that he be allowed to
affirm his allegiance, instead of making oath. Here the House of
Commons blundered, for if as a body it had given assent, that would
have made the request of Bradlaugh quite incidental and trivial.
Instead, the House made a mountain out of a molehill, by refusing the
request and appointing a select committee of seventeen members to
consider the matter. They called Bradlaugh before them and
interrogated him at length as to his belief in a Supreme Being and a
life after death. Then they voted, and the ballot stood eight to
eight. The chairman, a large white barn-owl, gave the casting vote,
declining to accept the affirmation. The matter was reported to the
House, and the action duly confirmed. Bradlaugh then, on advice of
Labouchere, notified the House that he was willing to accept the
regulation oath, all in the interests of amity, it being of course
understood that his religious views had not changed. Bradlaugh
thought, of course, that this would end the matter, his view being
that he had fully receded from his former position, and was conforming
to the pleasure of his colleagues in accepting the regulation oath. To
his surprise, however, when he approached the bar to take the oath,
Gladstone arose and remonstrated against administering the oath to a
man who had publicly disavowed his belief in a Supreme Being, and
moved that the question be referred to a select committee.
Here was a new and unexpected issue. The ayes had it. A committee,
consisting of the suggestive number of twenty-three, examined
Bradlaugh at length and finally reported against allowing him to take
the oath, but recommended that he be allowed to affirm at his own
legal risk. The suggestion was promptly voted down, to the eternal
discredit of Gladstone, who led the opposition, and was bent on
keeping the "infidel" out of Parliament. During the conflict, the
character, high endowments, and personal worth of Bradlaugh were never
officially challenged--it was just his lack of religious belief. The
matter was fast becoming a national issue, and Churchwomen without
number were canvassing all England with petitions asking Parliament to
remember that England was a Christian nation.
Bradlaugh was down and out, legally, but he presented himself again at
the bar, showed his election credentials, and demanded that the oath
be administered. He was arrested as an intruder on motion of Sir
Stafford Northcote, but was immediately released, as it was seen he
was going to meet violence with violence.
Gladstone here came in with a very sharp bit of practise. He
introduced a resolution that "any member shall be allowed to affirm or
to take oath, at his own legal peril."
Bradlaugh here fell an easy prey, and at once affirmed, and took his
seat, when he was straightway arrested on a warrant for violation of
the rules of the House, which ordained that no man should take
official part in Parliament who had not taken the oath.
This transferred the case to the criminal courts, where the case was
tried and Bradlaugh found guilty. This legally vacated his seat. The
Church folks were jubilant, and Gladstone received many
congratulations from men with collars buttoned behind, on having
disposed of the infidel Bradlaugh.
But the matter was not yet settled. Northampton had another election,
and Bradlaugh was again elected.
Again he presented himself at the bar of the House and asked to be
sworn. The House, however, would not accept either his oath or his
affirmation, and asked for time to consider. In the meantime, writs
were issued to "show cause," demurrers filled the air, and the
mandamus grew gross through lack of exercise.
Four months passed, and the House making no move, Bradlaugh endeavored
to appear and address the members on his own behalf. He was ordered to
leave. But he demanded "English fair play." He said: "I have been
elected a member of the House of Commons, you do not contest my
election, neither do you declare my seat vacant. I ask to be allowed
either to take the oath or to affirm, whichever you choose, but so far
you allow me to do neither. In justice to my constituents I am here to
The order was given that he be removed, and then occurred a scene such
as had never occurred in the House before, and probably never will
occur again. Four messengers attempted to seize Bradlaugh. He flung
them from him as though they were children. They stood about him
attempting to get a hold upon him, menacing him. The police were
called and ten of them made a rush at the man. Benches were torn up,
tables upset, and the mass of fifteen men went down in a heap.
Bradlaugh's clothing was literally torn into shreds, and his face was
bruised and bloody when after ten minutes' battle he was overpowered
and carried outside. No attempt was made to arrest him: he was simply
put out and the gates locked. The crowd in the street would have
overrun the place in an instant, had not Mrs. Besant, who stood
outside, motioned them back. They had put him out, but the end was not
yet. Things done in violence have to be done over again.
Bradlaugh was elected for the third time. Again he presented himself
at the House, and on refusal to administer the oath he administered it
himself. He was arrested for blasphemy, and charges of circulating
atheistic literature were brought in various courts. The endeavor was
to enmesh him in legal coils and break his spirit. Where then was the
English spirit of fair play!
But public opinion was crystallizing, society was waking up, and a
rapidly growing conviction was springing into being that, aside from
the injustice to Bradlaugh himself, the House of Commons was unfair
to Northampton in not allowing the borough to be represented by the
man they so persistently sent. "An affirmation bill" was introduced
in the House and voted down.
Again Bradlaugh was elected. On his sixth election Bradlaugh presented
himself as usual at the bar, and this time, on the order of Speaker
Peel, who had been elected on this very issue, Bradlaugh's oath was
accepted, and he took his seat. The opposition was dumb. Bradlaugh
He promptly introduced an affirmation bill which became a law without
any opposition worth the name. Bradlaugh's crowning achievement is
that he fixed in English law the truth that the affirmation of a man
who does not believe in a Supreme Being is just as good as the oath of
one who does.
During the Bradlaugh struggle, John Morley, the free-thinker, was a
member of the House of commons, having taken the regulation oath and
been accepted without quibble. Morley constantly used his influence
with Labouchere in Bradlaugh's behalf, but for five years he was
blocked by Gladstone.
However, John Morley is now a member of the Cabinet. Gladstone is
dead. In January, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-one, when it was known that
Bradlaugh was dying, a resolution was introduced and passed by the
House of Commons, expunging from the records all references to
Bradlaugh having been expelled or debarred from his seat. Gladstone,
the chief figure in the expulsion and disbarment, favored the
When the dying man was told this, he said: "Give them my greetings--I
am grateful. I have forgiven it all, and would have forgotten it,
save for this." Here he paused, and was silent. After some moments, he
opened his eyes, half-smiled, and motioning to Labouchere to come
close, whispered: "But, Labby, the past can not be wiped out by a
resolution of Parliament. The moving finger writes, and having writ,
moves on, nor all your tears shall blot a line of it."