“No organist can manipulate the stops and keys of his instrument with more dexterity than the demagogue exhibits in playing upon the different weaknesses, errors, and absurdities of the untutored mind.” Kent & Sussex Courier, 1874.
The word demagogue is thrown around quite a bit in politics today, but the term itself is nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a demagogue as a “political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power.” In the Victorian era, such a man was considered dangerous. Philosophers, poets, and newspapermen alike sought to warn the public, reasoning that the better one understood the repertoire of a demagogue, the less chance the demagogue would have of success. Their commentary is incredibly modern and (as in the case of a poem on demagoguery) occasionally quite humorous. In today’s article, we look at a few of the highlights.
To begin, it is worth noting that some learned Victorians felt that their society was especially vulnerable to the influence of demagogues. An article in an 1880 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette explains:
“Vast miscellaneous multitudes again govern the commonwealth, more at the mercy of sophistry than Greek or Roman assemblies because less on their guard against it, and more ignorant than the men who filled those assemblies because far less acquainted with the existing instruments of knowledge. In this kindly soil the Demagogue has again arisen, and under conditions far more favourable than of old to his pernicious authority.”
The same article goes on to call the growing influence of the demagogue in politics a “deadly malady” and a “sinister phenomenon.” Men in crowds were believed to be particularly vulnerable. Lies and half-truths which they might have resisted or even challenged on their own were “received as convincing by the multitude.” Vulgarities and suggestions of violence were also more acceptable when a man was part of a large group. As the Pall Mall Gazette states:
“…abuse which each man would think indecent is listened to with delighted approval by a great number of men collected together; and a contagion of irrational violence is seen to run through a crowd of hearers with the rapidity of blight spreading through the vegetation of a field.”
An example of just such an audience is referenced in an 1884 article in the Bucks Herald. Describing the group of men who had come to listen to a speech made by controversial British statesman John Bright, the article reports:
“…his abuse was applauded to the echo; his gross misrepresentations fell upon ears which were eager to receive anything which would strengthen in their perversity the distorted minds of their possessors.”
According to an article in an 1874 edition of the Kent & Sussex Courier, the “professional demagogue” worked upon the ignorance, prejudices, and selfish passions of his audience. In doing so, he employed his greatest skills:
“A fluent tongue, a loud utterance, an unabashed front—such, of course, are the prime articles of his repertory.”
Another skill of the demagogue was his ability to make his language ambiguous. As the Kent & Sussex Courier reports:
“Great, too, is the ingenuity which he expends in devising those terse and telling ambiguities, which, in one sense, appeal to the baser passions of his audience, and yet are capable of explanation and defence towards an opponent.”
It was just such ambiguity of language that allowed Bright to defend himself when his recommendation that his followers “burst open the doors of Parliament, which were barred against them” resulted in the 1866 Hyde Park Riots. The Kent & Sussex Courier explains that, to the masses, these words would not have been seen as metaphorical. Instead:
“…to the common mind they carried so dangerous a suggestion of physical force that they might in justice have led to the appearance of the writer in the dock on a charge of sedition.”
Some believed that the followers of a demagogue need only see the man’s true colors to condemn him. As the Bucks Herald states:
“…we believe that this display of the real colours under which they are fighting will drive all who really love their country, and wish to see its noble institutions preserved from the rash blows of the wild demagogue, into an alliance with the party of steady progress and reasonable reform.”
Unfortunately, in reality, the poor character or temperament of a demagogue made little difference to the most ardent of his followers. One of the best explanations for this is given not by a Victorian but by 18th century philosopher and political activist Thomas Paine (one of the founding fathers of the United States). In his 1819 biography of Paine, author John Harford quotes him as writing:
“Those who are simple enough to listen to a Demagogue, seldom care about his moral character. With the rights of the citizens, their virtue, and their sovereignty, eternally vibrating on his lips, he may, for aught they care, have a heart as black as Tartarus.”
Based on all of this, it sounds as if there was no defense to a demagogue. After all, if a demagogue was impervious to truth and well-reasoned arguments and if his followers remained devoted no matter his actions, what was an educated populace to do? According to Cobbett’s Gridiron (1822), the first step was to recognize that:
“…though he is excessively malignant and loud in his abuse; though he rages and foams like a storm, while he is assailing his adversary; he is as cowardly as he is unjust and cruel…”
It was this cowardice that prevented the demagogue from engaging with his adversary in a formal debate about the issues. Though powerful in front of his followers, he was wholly unequipped to meet his rival face-to-face. Cobbett’s explains this in vivid terms:
“Oh! how big and bold he looks! How he swaggers! How pompously he talks! But, put him in the face of that adversary; let him meet him foot to foot, and he sinks down his head, and hides his face, as if it were pelted at with mud or rotten eggs.”
I close this article with the promised poem on demagoguery. It was first printed in a May 5, 1866 edition of the Bucks Herald.
Thou base fomentor of a war of classes,
Though call’st the mob all wise, the peers all asses;
With thee in stupid vice each landlord grovels,
And none live well but they who live in hovels!
Thy rampant rhetoric owes half its force
To this, that Falsehood seldom checks its course.
Fierce on the platform, in the senate meek,
In declamation strong, in reason weak.
Dull in the moral sense, though bright in parts,
In thee good talents grace the worst of hearts—
Talents that still want wisdom and good sense,
Not bent to teach or please, but give offence.
Though foe to civil peace and calm contentment,
Preacher of envy, discord, and resentment,
That tell’st the freest nation of the earth
How that they groan in bondage from their birth.
Insulted, trodden on, by squire and peer,
Who tax our sugar, tea, tobacco, beer,
To pay for wars which they, the vile patricians,
Set going, that their sons may get commissions!
Most mischievous, most disingenuous prater,
Peace on thy lips, but quarrel in thy nature,
Whose thought of Freedom is that all thy betters
Should lick thy feet and wear thy galling fetters.
Of Freedom and Peace the champion eager,
That bidd’st a mob the senate-house beleaguer!
Still on thy course remorseless wilt though go,
And like a turbid torrent onward flow.
For thou, it seems, art fitted and design’d,
With all the gifts of a perverted mind,
To be a festering thorn in England’s side—
A crook in England’s lot, a slur upon her pride!
**Author’s Note: The images I’ve used in this article are merely to illustrate men speaking to crowds and the danger of riots and violence, not to condemn or endorse any political movement in history. As I’m sure you will all understand, illustrating this article was a rather difficult task.
“The Demagogue.” Bucks Herald. May 5, 1866.
“The Demagogue.” Pall Mall Gazette. April 23, 1880.
“Mischievous Demagogues.” Bucks Herald. August 9, 1884.
“Professional Demagogues.” Kent & Sussex Courier. October 2, 1874.
© 2015-2016 Mimi Matthews
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