Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican, by Bryan Niblett. Oxford: Kramedart Press, 2011. 400 pp. $32 (hardcover).
Dr. Bryan Niblett’s work, Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh, Atheist and Republican, immerses the reader in the life of a man who courageously fought against the Victorian-era culture of his time—and won. Niblett shows Bradlaugh to be a radical of his time, whose life’s work consisted of passionately arguing in support of his unpopular views, including atheism and individual rights, and against injustices such as the “Oaths Act” of England, which excluded men with certain religious beliefs, including atheism, from taking office as a member of Parliament (MP).
Niblett’s thesis is “that one man, relying on reason, and daring to stand alone, can make a difference in the world” (p. viii). This he shows by surveying the life of Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891), including personal, family, social, and business matters, but focusing primarily on various legal conflicts that defined Bradlaugh’s career. His life and struggles are presented in a series of short and accessible chapters.
We first see Bradlaugh as a poor young lad with a sense of justice, a desire to gain a wide range of knowledge and skills, and a penchant for conveying his ideas to others by means of logical arguments. He would grow to be one of 19th-century England’s greatest orators, a famous (and detested) atheist, the founder and first president of the National Secular Society, a powerful and distinctive MP, and a prominent opponent of socialism and communism.
Niblett shows that Bradlaugh was a consummate individualist, believing that people should never accept the claims of authorities on faith or expect to be taken care of by others, but rather should seek to understand matters for themselves and solve their own problems. And because he held that men should live by the judgment of their own minds, he held that they should be free to do so.
Following Bradlaugh’s formal education, which ended at age eleven, he proceeded to educate himself and, in the process, mastered the arts of rhetoric, lecturing, writing, and legal reasoning. Niblett explains that Bradlaugh
saved money by walking and running rather than taking the horse buses, using these savings to buy books. His first purchase, for a halfpenny, was a copy of The People’s Charter and this formed the foundation for what would become his large personal library. Books were expensive and in his early days were an indulgence he could rarely afford. So he haunted second-hand bookshops and educated himself standing up reading from the shelves. A book that had an immense appeal for him was a volume of Emerson’s Essays. Too poor to buy it, he copied out by hand the essay on ‘Self Reliance’. The precepts of Emerson, expressed in that essay in spare and sonorous tones, stayed with Bradlaugh all his life. ‘Nothing is at last sacred,’ wrote Emerson, ‘but the integrity of your own mind.’ The integrity of young Bradlaugh’s mind was soon to be put to the test. (p. 5)
His many years of independent study and thought led him to hold views that he considered rationally justifiable but that would, on many occasions, place him against the English government and the Victorian culture at large. Chief among these, explains Niblett, were Bradlaugh’s atheism, his “Malthusianism” (here a 19th-century euphemism for the advocacy of birth control), and his Republicanism (as against monarchism, socialism, and communism). Bradlaugh’s life consisted largely of moral battles waged either against him for his support of his radical ideas—or by him in support of these ideas.
Bradlaugh’s early exposure to atheism and the choices he makes thereafter are great examples of his mettle. His atheism, explains Niblett, arose as a consequence of noting many conflicting claims in the “four gospels” of the Bible and the thirty-nine Articles of the church at which he was teaching. While suspended for three months by the reverend for revealing these discrepancies to him, Bradlaugh lost a debate in which he attempted to defend the Christian view as best as he could against a heretic. Thus Bradlaugh reasoned himself into atheism and faced a crucial choice: Deny the results of his reasoning and remain a Christian, or accept the results of his reasoning and lose his home and employment. Rather than compromise his convictions or pretend to be something he was not, he left his home and job at age sixteen.
Bradlaugh thoroughly studied the Bible, commenting on every error and contradiction he could find, and combined these analyses into his first major work, The Bible: What Is It? Niblett emphasizes that Bradlaugh’s atheism was “thorough” and that he treated the issue like a lawyer, insisting that the burden of proving God’s existence rested on those who asserted it. He lectured for many years on freethinking and atheism, and wrote many articles on the benefits to be gained from releasing oneself from the dogmas of religion. He thus became both detested and admired.
As a firm believer in the propriety of individual effort, merit, and republicanism, he was an unyielding opponent of “hereditary privileges.” Niblett states that Bradlaugh “believed in a man’s personal self-determination, of making his own way in the world, of creating his character by, in Emerson’s phrase, ‘the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation’” (p. 349). Niblett informs us that the heated opposition to Bradlaugh’s views on republicanism came mostly from the public’s reaction to his 1872 pamphlet, “The Impeachment of the House of Brunswick,” an in-depth analysis and biting criticism of the Hanoverian kings, the five English monarchs who preceded Queen Victoria (King George I–IV, and King William IV). Bradlaugh became the effective leader of the English republican movement by founding and presiding over the influential “London Republican Club.” He advocated a peaceful, gradual republican revolution, as against a swift, bloody revolution, always insisting that the British Parliament had the legal authority to dethrone a monarch and form a true republic, if it chose to do so.
Niblett explains that Bradlaugh’s embrace of “Malthusianism” (again, in this context, meaning advocacy of birth control) further contributed to his infamy in the minds of many. Bradlaugh saw birth control not as a means to save the world from becoming overpopulated, but as a rational and prudent means for people, especially the poor, to control the size of their families and to handle their financial situations. Bradlaugh (along with his good friend Annie Besant) would later be charged with obscenity for publishing and selling an edited version of the 1832 birth-control pamphlet, The Fruits of Philosophy, by Charles Knowlton, M.D., an American physician. The controversy surrounding the trial made discussions of family limitation and birth control more culturally acceptable, which accorded well with Bradlaugh’s belief in freedom of opinion and the exchange of ideas. The obscenity trial was also notable, explains Niblett, because Charles Bradlaugh, a nonlawyer, had bested the second-highest lawyer in the English courts, the solicitor general, Sir Hardinge Giffard. This was the first in a series of legal battles between the two men.
Bradlaugh’s individualism also put him at odds with the British socialist movement that arose soon after Karl Marx’s death in 1883. Niblett informs us that Bradlaugh’s advocacy of the rights of the individual led him to completely oppose the tenets of socialism. He argued that socialism necessarily entails the abolition of all individual property and elevates the government to absolute controller of all wealth and director of all labor, notwithstanding the socialists’ claims of “the workers” gaining all the power. Despite being a National Secular Society president with impressive oratorical skills, Bradlaugh would lose many members (including Annie Besant) to the growing socialist movement.
In the chapters that relate Bradlaugh’s life to the socialist movement, Niblett stresses Bradlaugh’s individualism, quoting his own summary of his position, which was given in a debate with the socialist Henry Mayers Hyndman: “I urge that the only sufficient inducement to progress in society is by individual effort, spurred to action by the hope of private gain; it is the individual motive which prompts and spurs the individual to action” (p. 266). Substantiating Bradlaugh’s commitment to this position, Niblett describes the time when the socialists tried to pass a law forcing businesses across the nation to limit their workdays to eight hours. Bradlaugh, at this point an official member of Parliament, opposed the measure, not because he favored longer work days (he did not), but because he thought that Parliament had no place interfering with business operations, and that the employers and employees (with the help of trade unions, if desired) should regulate the work hours voluntarily. Further, he feared that reducing the work hours to eight would cause businesses to lose profits or even be ruined by the change, neither of which would have helped workers. From 1884 until his death in 1891, Bradlaugh was a vocal, uncompromising, and unapologetic opponent of socialism, urging people to see that they would be better off making economic decisions on their own rather than relying on the government to solve their problems.
I am not one of those who have ever flattered the people, or striven to win favour by telling them that from the Crown or from Parliament that could be got which could not be got from themselves, by themselves. I would impress upon you this. What the State gives to you, the State takes from you first; it further charges you with the cost of collection, and with the cost of distribution. Better by far that you should save for yourselves and spend for yourselves, than put into the purse of the State your earnings of which only part can at best come back. (p. 337)
Niblett explains that Bradlaugh published his ideas in a weekly journal titled the National Reformer, which he founded and ran for about thirty years. The National Reformer contained scholarly articles on literature, morality, religion, science, and politics but was written for the working class, and affordably priced for them. The journal, writes Niblett, “was addressed to radical intelligent workers who, like its owner, were free of the illusion that a university education was the only means of gaining a facility for profound thought” (p. 348). In the pages of the National Reformer,Bradlaugh asked the emerging secular societies to unify into one national organization. When the National Secular Society (NSS) was formed with Bradlaugh as president, the journal became the NSS’s chronicle.
Niblett also discusses how Bradlaugh represented and fought for the National Reformer against the attorney general of England (the highest lawyer position), the solicitor general, and a junior lawyer when the Commissioners of Inland Revenue indicted the journal. For many years, the masthead read, “Atheism, Malthusianism, Republicanism,” and Niblett explains that these three words indicated the main positions Bradlaugh fought for in its pages. Despite the many monuments to Bradlaugh that would be produced after his death, the greatest in Niblett’s view is the one Bradlaugh “created with thorough effort week by week over the years, the many volumes of his National Reformer” (p. 351).
Niblett sympathetically shows how Bradlaugh fought for twelve years to be elected in Northampton, finally winning on a combined Radical/Liberal ticket with Henry Labouchere in 1880. This would be only the beginning of his struggles as a politician. Among other things, he would face enormous opposition in Parliament’s House of Commons due to the conflict between his well-known atheism and the official oath for MPs, which invokes God’s name. Without taking the oath, Bradlaugh was liable for fines every time he participated in parliamentary debates or voted on anything, and would soon have to contend with such fines. Niblett exhaustively records how during this six-year struggle various MPs stood in the way of Bradlaugh’s political ambitions in myriad ways. After six years of setbacks, debates, and repeated “bye elections,” however, Bradlaugh was finally allowed to take the oath without invoking God. Niblett reminds the reader that this wouldn’t have been possible without Bradlaugh’s unwavering integrity and his willingness to fight alone, against incredible odds, over many years, to achieve his goal.
Niblett explains that Bradlaugh was an effective MP, in that he was able to propose resolutions that gained approval from both the Conservatives and the Liberals. Niblett discusses some of these, including those concerning market rights and tolls, perpetual pensions, and the Truck Act 1887. “This man who had been kept from his seat by his unpopular views was introducing reforming measures that attracted general assent,” remarks Niblett. He became the “member for India,” arguing in the House and all over India that it was time for India to have the chance to rule itself, giving Indians of ability a chance to govern their own country and solve their own problems. And Niblett announces that Bradlaugh’s “Oaths Act 1888” solved the affirmation problem forever, allowing atheists and men of all religions to solemnly affirm to fulfill a certain position’s duties as an alternative to taking an oath by “swearing to God.” This act not only allowed a person to affirm the position of MP; it also permitted one to affirm as a witness, a juror, a police officer, and a member of the army and navy, among other governmental positions—without reference to “God.”
Dare to Stand Alone is a great biography about a great man, filled with interesting events covering Bradlaugh’s challenging life. Bradlaugh held views that were ahead of his time, and he spent the majority of his life fighting in defense of them. He was an intellectual and moral hero, relentlessly going by his own judgment, seeking to convince others of the truth of his positions, and uniting many people to his cause in the process.
Niblett deserves a great deal of praise as well. Despite this being his first biography, he demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of his subject and presents the essential facts of Bradlaugh’s life in a lively and engaging manner. It is a testament to Niblett’s biographical skills that he has turned what could have been a series of dry, uninteresting legal disputes into a profound and exhilarating depiction of a great defender of freedom.
In appreciation for Niblett’s book and Bradlaugh’s life, I’ll leave you with the following from Annie Besant’s The Secular Song and Hymn Book, as quoted by Niblett:
‘Dare to be a Bradlaugh!
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known!’ (p. v)