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21 Oct

The Poor and Politics

Great pains have been taken to prevent the mass of mankind from interfering in political pursuits; force, and argument, and wit, and ridicule, and invective, have been used by the governing party, and with such success, that any of the lower, or even middle rank of society who engage in politics, have been, and are, considered not only as ridiculous, but in some degree culpable; even those who are called moral writers, employed their talents on the same side, so that at last it became an indisputed maxim that the poor were not to concern themselves in what related to the government of the country in which they lived, nevertheless it is an error of the most pernicious nature, as will appear from considering the subject. […]

Now on what foundation do these arrogant claims rest; it is not superior virtue, for in such hands power should be vested; on a fair comparison it will be found, that the aristocracy have not a superiority in that respect. Power, long continued in any mortal hands, has a tendency to corrupt; ans when that power is derived from birth or fortune, and held independent of the people, it is still more likely to be abused; it is not that they contribute more to the support of the state, for that is manifestly not the case. […]

It is not here intended to question the right of landed property; but merely to show, as if evident from these considerations, that even in a pecuniary view, the mass of the people are entitled to a share in the government as well as the rich.

From Thomas Russell (1796) A letter to the people of Ireland, on the present situation of the country, by Thomas Russell, -an United Irishman, Belfast.

Russell (21 November 1767-21 October 1803) was openly radical, as the above extract shows. The Dictionary of Irish Biography outlines his position – he “proclaimed the right of the poor to participate in politics…and believed that radical measures should be taken to alleviate inequalities between rich and poor. He was appalled by harsh conditions in textile mills and encouraged workers to form trade unions. Fervently opposed to the African slave trade, he denounced it repeatedly in his writings as one of the great evils of the age and refused to consume sugar or rum.”

Further Reading

James Quinn (2009) “Russell, Thomas”. in James McGuire, James Quinn (eds) Dictionary of Irish Biography, Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

James Quinn (2002) “Thomas Russell: United Irishman.” History Ireland.

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