Freedom Isn’t Free

A new film about the Peterloo massacre of 1819 reminds us that democracy must be continually fought for.

The struggle to establish and maintain democratic governance is long and arduous. Today, liberal democracies are being tested all around the world, from the United Kingdom to India to even the United States. It’s not a given that liberal democratic governance is the “end of history,” as Francis Fukayama once argued. It must be fought for.

But if democracy is predicated on giving people a say in their own governance, then how they use their voices is arguably just as important. That is the subject of Mike Leigh’s gorgeous and somber new film, Peterloo. Based on the notorious Peterloo massacre two hundred years ago, the film argues that the most profound act of patriotism can be too dissent.

In 1819, England is haunted after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Masses of people start to demand parliamentarian reforms—mainly, extending voting rights to working people, which horrifies the governing classes that have fought a 20-year battle to thwart Napolean’s vision for revolutionary changes. (Just as Americans are still grappling with race-based strictures held over from the days of segregation, Peterloo underscores the repressive nature of 19th century Britain’s class-based system.)

Peterloo shows how the mechanics of government was done in this era. It functioned primarily through the administration of paper and ink, which was also the primary means to transmit knowledge and information. The problem for British society, however, was that working-class citizens were disenfranchised.

Ordinary people start gathering in “publick” houses and other meeting places to plan a massive protest denouncing “tyranny” and promoting “liberty.” These gatherings lead to an eventual demonstration of more than 60,000 people in Manchester, England. The government responds by deploying soldiers to forcibly disburse the peaceful crowd, including through the use of their swords. (Twenty years after the end of the French Revolution, England’s leaders knew well the costs of widespread social and political upheaval.)

Yet Peterloo is not only about spilling blood to obtain universal suffrage. It is about how working-class people advocating for the right to be heard was considered seditious in 19th Century Britain. The film explores a pivotal episode in the “making of the English working class,” as pie-maker Nellie, played by Maxine Peake, says. Her family struggles to make ends meet while the reformist cause is argued in homes, pubs, and on the street.

Working over a large canvas, Leigh cross cuts between Nellie with her family and the town’s many factions pushing for reform. While a trio of young working-class hotheads are calling for drastic action, such as “arresting the king,” weavers like John Knight (Philip Jackson), a self-educated intellectual, want to develop a movement for “one man, one vote” via the Manchester Patriotic Union, a reformist group. Peterloo takes on a feminist undertone: while Nellie may be cynical about the protests’ ability to achieve anything, other women are organizing as much as the men.

As a historical guide, Peterloo shows how the industrial revolution would eventually transform modes of communication, and thereby, change the nature of politics: the film is as much about delivering the word as it is about universal suffrage

Newspapers, like the Manchester Observer, are the chief venue in Peterloo for providing citizens with information, and thus advocating for any kind of political change.But that can only do so much. To disseminate information beyond Manchester, the prominent radical orator Henry Hunt delivers a stirring speech one day to a crowd of  men, women, and children about the need for parliamentary reforms.

Dressed in their Sunday’s best, Nellie and her family attend can barely hear what’s being said in the back of the crowd; the English have no PA system. But they—along with the assembled multitude—wind up facing the slashing sabers of charging cavalrymen while magistrates read the riot act from the safety of a three-storied building.

With at least fifteen killed (the exact number is undetermined) and an estimated 400-700 injured, the Peterloo massacre was a major moment in England’s history. The word “Peterloo” would eventually become a catchword developed by journalists who witnessed the slaughter of nonviolent people.

And yet, despite its length—the film is two hours and 34 minutes long—Leigh gives no indication of the aftermath of this massacre on England’s political situation thereafter. One has to go to other sources to learn that the government’s reaction was to continue cracking down on the dissenting voices call for reform.

As a matter of fact, the British government later decided to go after The Manchester Observer, which was shuttered the following year. Interestingly, not one member of the military unit was charged with killing unarmed civilians.

The actual enfranchisement of working-class British males came 48 years later—and women gained the right to vote 100 years later. In liberal democracies where illiberal populism is threatening democratic norms, Peterloo reminds us that, as Thomas Jefferson once observed, the “natural manure” of liberty is “the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

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Norman Kelley

Norman Kelley is an author, journalist, and filmmaker living in Washington, D.C.