Chartism (The Chartist Movement)
The Chartist Movement had at its core the so-called "People's
Charter" of 1838. This document, created for the London Working
Men's Association, was primarily the work of William Lovett. The
charter was a public petition aimed at redressing omissions from
the electoral Reform Act of 1832. It quickly became a rallying point
for working class agitators for social reform, who saw in it a cure-all
for all sorts of social ills. For these supporters the People's Charter
was the first step towards a social and economic utopia.
In demanding so much the supporters of the charter probably ensured
its downfall, for the number of demands probably diluted support
for any single demand.
Demands of the People's Charter. The People's Charter outlined
6 major demands for reform. These were:
Institution of a secret ballot
General elections be held annually
Members of Parliament not be required
to own property
MPs be paid a salary
Electoral districts of equal size
Universal male suffrage
The National Convention
The first gathering of Chartist
delegates gathered in London on February 4, 1839. Although 53 delegates
came to London, they were aware of laws forbidding gatherings of
more than 50 men, and so took care that no more than that number
were present at any one time. At this gathering the nature of the
divisions that were to trouble the Movement were apparent, as some
delegates favoured violence if necessary, some favoured a general
strike, and there was even talk of electing a "people's parliament.
In other words, in common with many social movements, they could
figure out what they were against, but had a harder time figuring
out what to do about it.
The Convention did adopt the motto "peaceably if we may, forcibly
if we must", which may have frightened of those more moderate
middle-class members who might have been persuaded to support their
cause. Agitation continued throughout the spring of 1839, and government
troops were used to ensure order in some areas of the country, notably
Proponents of the charter gathered over 1.25 million
signatures in support of their aims. They presented the charter and
the signatures to Parliament when it gathered in July, 1839. Though
supported by future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the charter
was rejected by the House of Commons by a vote of 235 to 46. In the
wake of this defeat in the Commons, the National Convention lost
its importance and finally dissolved itself in September.
With the national leadership of the Movement no longer effective,
local reformers took charge. The government had many leaders of the
movement arrested or detained. There were outbreaks of violence in
several regions, notably at Newport, where 24 protestors were killed.
The suppression of the Chartists drew further attention to their
cause, but the movement in general failed to cross class lines and
gain the necessary support among members of the ruling aristocracy
and landed gentry.
The Chartists attempted to submit their petition to Parliament twice
more, in 1842, when they claimed to have gathered over 31 million
signatures of support, and for a final time in 1848. After this final
failure the movement died out.
Why did Chartism seem a threat to authority?
The aims of
the Chartists may seem mild and eminently sensible to modern readers.
But to the government of Victorian England they represented a potential
for upheaval and overthrow of social institutions and entrenched
authority. The violent turmoil of the French Revolution was still
fresh in the minds of many in positions of authority. Rather than
being swayed by the sensibilities of the Chartist's demands, they
reacted in fear at the possibility of violent overthrow of society
- and their own positions.
Why did Chartism fail?
Chartism failed for a number of reasons;
most obviously, it failed to gather support in Parliament - not surprising
when you consider the threat it posed to the self-interest of those
in power. Equally important, it failed to gather support from the
middle-classes. The demands of Chartism were too radical for many
of the middle-classes, who were comfortable enough with the status
quo. The repeal of the Corn Laws helped improve the economic climate
of Britain, and there was less interest in radical reform. As well,
the mid-19th century spawned a variety of social-reform groups with
special aims, and the Chartist moivement lost many of its members
to these other groups.
Why was it a success?
Although the Chartist Movement failed
to directly achieve its aims, a good case can be made that the movement
itself was not a failure at all, but a powerful force that resulted
in an increased awareness of social issues and created a framework
for future working-class organisations. Many of the demands of the
Chartists were eventually answered in the electoral reform bills
of 1867 and 1864. It also seems likely that the agitation for reform
that the Chartist Movement helped bring to the forefront of British
society was responsible for the repeal of the Corn
Laws and other social reforms.
Chartism in 'A History of the British Nation'
Prehistory - Roman
Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval
Britain - The Tudor Era - The
Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age
© David Ross
and Britain Express