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 six major demands for reform. These were:

  • Institution of a secret ballot
  • General elections to be held annually
  • Members of Parliament not be required to own property
  • MPs to 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 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 the north.

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 movement 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.

Corn Laws
Chartism in 'A History of the British Nation'.