|The Robert Owen Museum. Photo by "Indigo Goat" Some rights reserved|
Public Meetings 1817
154 The proceedings connected with the public meetings 155 I held were minutely narrated in all the London newspapers, the Times taking the leading interest. 156 I generally purchased thirty thousand additional copies of the newspapers, and had one copy sent to every parish minister, every member of both houses of parliament, one to each chief magistrate and banker in each city and town, and to leading persons in all classes. To meet the public excitement, I [also] published three broadsheets. The forty thousand copies were called for in three days. The extra publicity [cost] me four thousand pounds. Broadsheets one and two were published on 30th July and 9th August, announcing the meeting to be held 157 on 14th August.
On the 14th, the large room of the “City of London Tavern”, where all the great public meetings were held, was crammed to its utmost, and thousands [could not gain] entrance. I delivered my address to attentive silence. [Afterwards, there was some] disorder before an adjournment [to 21st August] was moved. The next day, my address was accurately reported in every London newspaper. I sent such numbers to the post office that all the mail coaches were delayed twenty minutes in leaving London.
I was informed that[my proceedings]had alarmed the government, which I by no means intended. I asked Lord 158 Liverpool for an interview, which was immediately appointed for the next day. Lord Liverpool [received] me with considerable agitation and said – “Mr Owen, what is your wish?” It was evident that the government felt they were at my mercy. 159 I replied that all I desired was that his Lordship and his cabinet would allow their names to be upon the committee of investigation which I should propose at the meeting the next day. His Lordship [agreed] – I never saw anyone so immediately relieved.
158 I had pondered well after the first meeting what course to pursue to gain ultimately my great object – the change of a false, wicked and most cruel system of society, creating misery to all, for the true, just, merciful and good system, securing the happiness of all. I had discovered that the great obstacle to progress and improvement was Religion, [which kept] mankind in the most gross and childish ignorance, destructive of allrational faculties.
159 What I intended to say at the adjourned meeting was too important to be left to the inaccuracy of reporters. I told them that if they came to me when my address should be about half delivered, they should be supplied with copies of the whole. I had sixteen copies made, having a blank space, which I filled up in the morning before the meeting. I gave no one the least idea of my intentions.
160 I went to this meeting by far the most popular 161 individual in the civilised world. I commenced my address, and continued amidst much applause from the friends of the cause which I advocated, until I approached that part in which I denounced all the religions of the world as now taught. I said – “ A more important question has never been put – who dares answer it, but with his life in his hand, a willing victim to truth? Behold that victim! Then, my friends, I tell you that hitherto you have been prevented from knowing what happiness really is, solely in consequence of errors, gross errors.”
A breathless silence prevailed. I finished the sentence as stated in Paper no. 3, and paused. My expectations were that such a daring denouncement of all existing religions would call down on me the vengeance of the bigot and superstitious, and that I should be torn to pieces. But to my great astonishment, the most profound silence ensued 162 . All seemed thunderstruck and confounded. After a long pause, about half a dozen clergymen attempted a few low hisses, but these were immediately rebutted by the most heartfelt applause. I said to the friends near me – “the victory is gained. Truth openly stated is omnipotent.”
I then proceeded, and finished my address, which was again loudly cheered. A long debate followed, by those who desired to defeat my proposed resolution for the appointment of a committee to investigate my plans for the relief of the poor. By seven o’clock, the respectable part of the audience had left, and workpeople [had been] brought in. I knew that I had destroyed my popularity with those legion who had been taught to believe and not to think. When the vote was taken, there was great confusion. The majority were decidedly in my favour, but to terminate the meeting peaceably, I decided the resolution negatived.
I have [ever] considered that day the most important of my life – the day on which bigotry, superstition and all false religions, received their death blow. 163 From this day, the religious sects commenced their machinations to counteract these daring proceedings of a mere manufacturer of cotton, [though] I was styled the prince of cotton spinners. 164 My political opponents were also not idle, but their proceedings were frank and open. Those who preferred the individual system, – whether or not the social was practicable, were numerous and powerful. 192 The word “Infidel” was the watchword of attack with all my opponents.
164 My friend Henry Brougham saw me the day after the meeting, and came to me, saying “How the devil, Owen, could you say what you did! If any of us” (meaning the then so-called Liberal party) “had said half as much, we should have been burned alive,– and here are you quietly walking in the street!”