Chartist Movement

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Chartist Movement

Great Britain 1838-1848


Chartism was a mass movement that emerged in the political disappointments and economic difficulties of the later 1830s and was active until 1848. The movement centered on the People's Charter (May 1838), which made six demands: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, a secret ballot, equal electoral districts, abolition of the property qualification for Members of Parliament (MPs), and payment of MPs. Chartism was the culmination of a well-established tradition of radical politics in both its analysis and strategy. Chartism blamed political corruption and "class legislation " for working-class hardships. It sought to mobilize its supporters and intimidate its opponents by demonstrations of the strength of popular opinion in mass meetings and petitions to Parliament. Chartism proffered three petitions (in 1839, 1842 and 1848); each was rejected. The movement also marked a development in the nature of radical politics in that it was a more exclusively and assertively working-class body. The National Charter Association, established in 1840, and, more controversially, the Chartist Land Plan of 1845, provided the working-class political movement with its first permanent organization. Chartism, confronted by a resolute and effective state and uncertain of its own response, failed to achieve any of its aims but bequeathed a significant legacy of working-class activism.


  • 1818: In a decisive defeat of Spanish forces, soldier and statesman Simón Bolívar leads the liberation of New Granada, which includes what is now Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. With Spanish power now waning, Bolívar becomes president and virtual dictator of the newly created nation of Colombia.
  • 1823: U.S. president James Monroe establishes the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States warns European nations not to interfere in the political affairs of the Western Hemisphere.
  • 1830: French troops invade Algeria, and at home, a revolution forces the abdication of Charles V in favor of Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King."
  • 1836: Boer farmers embark on their "Great Trek" into the hinterlands of South Africa, forming the enclaves of Natal, Transvaal, and the Orange Free State.
  • 1837: Coronation of Queen Victoria in England takes place.
  • 1838: The forcible removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) along the "Trail of Tears" begins.
  • 1838: As crops fail, spawning famine in Ireland, Britain imposes the Poor Law. Designed to discourage the indigent from seeking public assistance, the law makes labor in the workhouse worse than any work to be found on the outside, and thus has the effect of stimulating emigration.
  • 1839: England launches the First Opium War against China. The war, which lasts three years, results in the British gaining a free hand to conduct a lucrative opium trade, despite opposition by the Chinese government.
  • 1844: Samuel Laing, in a prize-winning essay on Britain's "National Distress," describes conditions in a nation convulsed by the early Industrial Revolution. A third of the population, according to Laing, "hover[s] on the verge of actual starvation"; another third is forced to labor in "crowded factories"; and only the top third "earn[s] high wages, amply sufficient to support them in respectability and comfort."
  • 1851: Britain's Amalgamated Society of Engineers applies innovative organizational concepts, including large contributions from, and benefits to, members, as well asvigorous use of direct action and collective bargaining.

Event and Its Context

Origins and Causes

Chartism was not, as portrayed in the past, "hunger politics"—an irrational, untutored response to economic hardship—but economic circumstances were significant in its origins and course. The movement grew as industrialization took hold. Artisanal trades were increasingly subject to market pressures and mechanized competition; although Chartism was not the prerogative of the so-called declining trades, these literate craftsmen formed a significant component of its support. Skilled factory workers also fought to defend their working conditions and retain some control over the labor process. In fact, Chartism provided the umbrella under which a wide cross-section of the working population struggled to defend its status. Chartism peaked at times of economic depression. A slump that began in the late 1830s and peaked in 1842 provided powerful momentum for Chartist protest. Chartist activity declined in the mid-1840s as conditions improved, but the economic difficulties of 1847-1948 revived the mass movement.

At the heart of the Chartists' economic grievances, however, there lay a powerful political analysis. The labor theory of value (i.e., that the value of a item derives from the labor applied to produce it), which had developed in the 1820s, strengthened the Chartists' sense of exploitation, but the exploitation itself was attributed not to the economic process as such but to the political system. Chartists, as had their radical forebears, blamed their poverty on "Old Corruption, " which was construed as a greedy and self-interested governing elite that taxed the wealth of the "producing classes " to maintain its extravagant and parasitic lifestyle. The 1815 Corn Laws (which placed a duty on imported grain) and the variety of other tariffs on consumption gave this analysis credibility. Up to sixteen percent of working-class incomes went to indirect taxation.

The Chartists, therefore, sought political redress and were strengthened in their demand for political power by the 1832 Reform Bill and its aftermath. This bill, which was brought about in large measure by working-class protest, extended the franchise to the property-owning middle classes while deliberately excluding working-class men from the vote. The bill split the fragile reforming alliance of the middle and working classes and, as intended by its creators, largely recruited the former to the cause of order and the status quo. The apparent cynicism of this maneuver and the pusillanimity of their erstwhile allies were amply confirmed in Chartist eyes by the behavior of Whig governments after the "great betrayal " of 1832. The 1833 Factory Act disappointed a widespread working-class protest movement by refusing to legislate a 10-hour working day. The 1834 Poor Law, by its provision that any relief must be provided in a workhouse, seemed to punish the poor and rob the state of any legitimizing paternalist role. Attempts to defend living conditions through nonpolitical means failed. Owenite cooperation, represented in the National Equitable Labour Exchange of 1832, proved impractical. The upsurge of trade unionism in the early 1830s, notably the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) of 1834, collapsed as a result of both its own internal weaknesses and government repression. This repression was exemplified by the transportation of the "Tolpuddle Martyrs " (six agricultural laborers who had attempted to form a branch of the GNCTU) in 1834 and the prosecution of the Glasgow cotton spinners for strike activity in 1838.

In this context, working-class radicalism's critique of "class legislation " and class rule revived. Although the Charter itself was little more than a tabulation of long-established radical demands, the London Workingmen's Association provided the program of the nascent Chartist movement by drafting the six points and publishing the People's Charter in May 1838.Thomas Attwood's Birmingham Political Union offered significant support and supplied Chartism's core tactic of a national petition. Some 600 radical societies formed in the North and provided strength in depth to the movement. Feargus O'Connor played a leading role and many activists and such leaders as J. R. Stephens switched directly from anti-Poor Law agitation to the wider politics of Chartism. O'Connor's newspaper, the Northern Star, was first published in 1837 and sold 50,000 copies weekly at its peak in 1839; it provided propaganda and cohesion to the growing movement, which coalesced in a series of mass meetings that held in Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, and elsewhere between May and September 1838. These meetings elected the 53 delegates to the "General Convention of the Industrious Classes, " which convened in February 1839 to oversee strategy and present the Chartist Petition.

The Course of Chartism

Chartism represented a powerful convergence of experience, agitation, and organization, yet it remained rooted in the fallible radical conviction that the strength of mass public opinion could persuade the ruling classes to relinquish their power. The General Convention discussed a variety of "ulterior measures " to be implemented should the petition fail. These included a "Sacred Month " (general strike), a run on banks, and a boycott of hostile traders. The delegates were divided in temperament and tactics, however, and no coherent response emerged when Parliament rejected the petition, with its 1.28 million signatures, in July 1839 by 235 votes to 46. Depleted by arrests and split by the resignation of more moderate, often middle-class, delegates, the convention eventually dissolved itself in September, having first endorsed and then rescinded the general strike tactic.

Some radical Chartists believed that the time had come for insurrection. The most violent response came in Newport, South Wales, where, in November 1839, John Frost led 5000 miners to release imprisoned Chartists. Troops dispersed the attack, killing 24. A rising in Sheffield in January 1840, which had been reported to the authorities, was even less successful. Whether any more concerted action was planned or, at least, hoped for is difficult to determine, but the government's fear of the Chartist threat was demonstrated by its arrest of 543 Chartist leaders between June 1839 and July 1840. This was an effective move that disoriented the movement at a crucial time by robbing Chartism of its local and national leadership and instilling fear of the power of the state.

Chartism regrouped in July 1840 with the foundation of the National Charter Association (NCA), which was intended to provide a permanent leadership and organization. By April 1842, the NCA had 401 branches and some 50,000 subscribing members. The NCA, championed by O'Connor, represented the mainstream of the movement. Traditional historians, influenced by the partisan memoirs of some of O'Connor's opponents, have emphasized at this point a growing rift in the movement between so-called "Physical Force " Chartists and their "Moral Force " adversaries. In reality, the Chartist slogan, "Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must, " represented the viewpoint of most Chartists and reflected the widespread and well-established radical belief in the justifiability, and perhaps necessity, of working-class self-defense against state oppression.

Similarly, the rhetorical violence of O'Connor and other more "extreme " Chartist leaders echoed the "language of menace " that had been traditionally employed by radical leaders in their attempts to intimidate an entrenched ruling class. William Lovett, founder of the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People in 1841, emphasized working-class self-improvement; the movement rejected his doctrine not for its object per se but for its implication that the vote had to be earned rather than granted as a right. O'Connor's rejection of any alliance with middle-class groups that were campaigning for parliamentary reform or the repeal of the Corn Laws also reflects Chartism's deep distrust of any compromise that might detract from the integrity of their cause. O'Connor's single-mindedness—or arrogance in the eyes of his critics—did, however, alienate the support of other leaders of Chartism such as Bronterre O'Brien and Henry Hetherington.

In May 1842, the House of Commons rejected the second Chartist petition, which claimed 3.3 million signatures, by 287 votes to 49. The rejection came at a time of severe economic depression. A strike wave, protesting wage cuts, spread from the Midlands to the North and Scotland. (The removal of boiler plugs from steam engines as a means of enforcing the stoppage gave this strike wave its pejorative name, the "Plug Plot.") Though the strikes originated in economic grievances, they took on a political character: some strikers and a delegate conference of trade union leaders in Manchester vowed not to resume work until the Charter was granted. The Conservative Government of Robert Peel responded firmly by arresting approximately 1500 strikers. The strikes petered out by September.

Its second failure and the economic recovery after 1842 hit Chartism hard. O'Connor used this hiatus to promote the Land Plan, which he launched formally in 1845. The plan established a subscription fund to purchase land and provide members, selected by ballot, with smallholdings. By 1851, the plan had accrued only 250 subscribers and was beset by financial and legal difficulties. Though frequently criticized as a sign of O'Connor's eccentricity and incompetence, the plan had greater attraction and relevance to the urban working classes than often credited. Some 70,000 eventually subscribed, drawn by its promise of self-reliance and also by its intended benefit to industrial workers (i.e., that land settlement would reduce pressure on the labor market and raise working-class incomes). The plan at least provided a cause and a focus for Chartism when the movement was at low ebb.

Poor harvests starting in 1846 and a commercial crisis in 1847 provided the conditions for the last upsurge of Chartism. Meetings resumed and the collection of signatures for a third petition commenced. The Chartist Convention, buoyed by the success of the February revolution in France, planned a mass meeting in Kennington Common, south London, to present the petition with its claimed 5.5 million signatures. The authorities, alarmed at the threat of insurrection, recruited 170,000 special constables and deployed 7,000 regular troops. The Chartist leadership, intent on a peaceful meeting, abandoned a planned march on Parliament. Parliament inspected the petition, found that only some 1.5 million signatures were genuine, and rejected it. The government easily suppressed the poorly planned August Chartist rising and arrested approximately 300 participants. Chartism, humiliated in hostile eyes, was at least outfaced and dissolved as a mass movement. In the 1850s, O'Connor lapsed into insanity. Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney sought to move what remained of the movement in a socialist direction, but most former Chartist activists moved into other areas of working-class politics.

Significance and Interpretation

Chartism did not achieve any of its objectives though all (with the exception of annual parliaments) were enacted subsequently. Parliament abolished the property qualification for MPs in 1858, extended the franchise to working-class males in 1867 and 1884, introduced the secret ballot in 1872, redistributed constituencies in 1885, and established payment for MPs in 1911.

Traditionally, the Chartist movement failure was explained by the "premature " and "extreme " nature of its demands and the immaturity of a working-class that had been led astray by unscrupulous demagogues (notably O'Connor) who divided the movement and wrested it from its respectable and rational artisanal roots. The decline of Chartism in times of economic prosperity and its demise as working-class living standards rose after 1850 is seen as confirmation that the movement was essentially an inchoate and reflexive response to economic hardship.

Historians in the 1980s substantially revised this outlook. The modern interpretation of Chartism is as an essentially cohesive and coherent movement that successfully mobilized a disparate working class behind a common program and shared ideology. This view also stresses the breadth and depth of Chartism as well as O'Connor's role as an important organizer and articulator of a mass movement that reached across the trades and localities that were sometimes held to have divided it. It became a very largely working-class movement, reflecting a class identity forged in the economic process and tempered by the politics of the 1830s. It created new forms of working-class self-organization, notably the NCA, and it generated a democratic counter-culture of Chartist schools, temperance societies, burial clubs, and the like. Yet it failed.

Chartism failed essentially because its strategy of change failed. It failed to overawe the ruling elite, and its legitimizing constitutionalism and focus on peaceful means left it powerless when government rejected its demands. The resolution and strength of state repression at key moments ensured that the much-vaunted right of forcible resistance to oppression was both impractical and, to most Chartists, unappealing.

Chartism was also limited by its ideology. The Chartist critique, which was centered on the attack on "Old Corruption " and "class legislation, " was undermined by government reforms in the 1840s. The 1842 Mines Act, the 1847 Factory Act (which conceded a 10-hour day), Peel's Free Trade budgets of the 1840s and, most notably, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 all benefited the working class and discredited Chartism's analysis that progress could only be achieved through wholesale political reform. In this respect, the direct legacy of Chartism was slight. In the following decades, working-class activism focused principally on measures of self-help (e.g., trade unionism and friendly societies), and the political agenda concentrated on demands for legal protection. In the second half of the century, as the economy grew and society stabilized, the working class became more integrated into the existing order and more politically reformist in temperament. Indirectly, Chartism had provided a corps of activists who continued to struggle in defense of working-class interests, albeit by different and less radical means.

Key Players

Attwood, Thomas (1783-1859): Attwood, a successful Birmingham banker, believed in currency reform to stimulate trade and supported parliamentary reform to achieve a House of Commons representative of manufacturing interests. A founder of the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) in 1830 and a leading campaigner for reform in the early thirties, Attwood served as MP for Birmingham from1832 to 1839 but, frustrated by Parliament's continued unwillingness to adopt his ideas, he revived the BPU in 1837 to press for further reform. Though willing to cooperate with the respectable radicalism of the London Working Men's Association, Attwood disliked the "extremism " of other Chartist leaders and withdrew from the reform campaign and political life after the rejection of the first Chartist petition.

Frost, John (1784-1877): A master tailor from Newport, South Wales and supporter of universal manhood suffrage from the early 1830s, Frost was elected a Newport councilor, served as mayor from 1835 to 1837, and as a magistrate until removed by the Home Secretary after he had emerged as one of the most radical delegates to the 1839 General Convention. He was charged with high treason for his leadership role in the Newport Rising and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to transportation to Tasmania and Frost lived there and in the United States until finally allowed back to Britain in 1856. He remained an advocate of radical political reform.

Jones, Ernest (1819-1869): An upper-class barrister, Jones became active in Chartist politics in the mid-1840s as an ally of Feargus O'Connor and co-editor of the Northern Star. He was imprisoned for two years for sedition in 1848, then on his release, cooperated in left-wing journalism with George Julian Harney, whose socialist politics he shared, before founding the People's Paper (1851-1858). Failing to get elected to Parliament, he reverted to the practice of law but continued to work for radical causes (and write novels) until his death.

O'Brien, James Bronterre (1805-1864): Born in Ireland, O'Brien gave up a planned legal career in London to support the radical movement and became one of its more powerful journalists. O'Brien, dubbed the "schoolmaster of Chartism, " was unusual in forming a socialist critique of the existing order and advocating a sweeping program of social reform. In the 1840s he diverged with O'Connor on tactics but remained active in the reform campaign (in the Complete Suffrage Union), in journalism, and later in working-class education.

O'Connor, Feargus (1794-1855): O'Connor was a lawyer and Irish Radical MP from 1832 to 1835, when he was unseated for failing the property qualification. He toured the North of England starting in 1835 to oppose the 1834 Poor Law and demand radical political reform and founded the Northern Star in 1837, thus playing the principal role in the development of northern Chartism. O'Connor was a powerful orator whose fierce rhetoric belied his opposition to insurrectionary violence. He was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment in 1840 for seditious libel and was arrested again in 1842. Criticized by some for arrogance and fractiousness, O'Connor was, nevertheless, the most popular leader of Chartism in the 1840s and the key proponent of the failed Land Plan in 1845. He was elected MP for Nottingham in 1847 but suffered serious mental decline in his later years.

Stephens, Joseph Rayner (1805-1879): A nonconformist minister, Stephens was a Tory radical whose belief in the state's paternalist role led him to support the factory reform movement and oppose the 1834 Poor Law. A fiery orator and militant, he was imprisoned in 1839 for sedition but he was never a supporter of Chartism's political analysis and dropped out of the movement. He did, however, remain active in campaigns for child welfare and workers' conditions.

See also: Factory Act; London Workingmen's Association.



Epstein, J. and Thompson, Dorothy, eds. The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830-60. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1982.

Thompson, Dorothy. The Chartists. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.


Belchem, John. "Taking Chartism Seriously." Modern History Review. (April 1996).

Royle, Edward. "Chartism." ReFRESH. Recent Findings of Research in Economic and Social History 2 (spring 1986): 1-4.

Taylor, Miles. "Rethinking the Chartists: Searching for a Synthesis in the Historiography of Chartism." The Historical Journal 39, no. 2 (June 1996): 479-495.

Additional Resources


Ashton, Owen R., Robert Fyson, and Stephen Roberts, eds. The Chartist Legacy. Rendlesham: Merlin Press, 1999.

Briggs, Asa. Chartist Studies. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Epstein, James. The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O'Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832-1842. London: Croom Helm, 1982.

Jones, David J. V. Chartism and the Chartists. New York:St. Martin's Press, 1975.

——. The Last Rising: The Newport Insurrection of 1839.Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Ward, J. T. Chartism. New York: Barnes & Noble Books,1973.


Pickering, P. A. "'And Your Petitioners, &c.': Chartist Petitioning in Popular Politics, 1838-48." English Historical Review 116, no. 466 (April 2001): 368-388.

Stack, D. "William Lovett and the National Association for the Political and Social Improvement of the People." Historical Journal (1999).


"Chartism." Spartacus Educational. 30 June 2002 [cited 11July 2002]. <>.

—John Boughton

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Chartist Movement

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