CHARTISMthe campaign to secure the charter
influence of chartism
Chartism, which flourished between 1838 and 1848, was a movement to secure a democratic system of government in Great Britain. It took its name from the People's Charter (1838), a draft parliamentary bill to transform the House of Commons into a democratic chamber responsive to the wishes and needs of the people as a whole and not just the propertied classes. The idea for such a bill emerged from discussions between a small group of radical members of Parliament (MPs) and leaders of earlier reform movements in London. Most of the latter had been members of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC), which had agitated for the Reform Bill in the years 1831 and 1832 and had taken part in the struggle to secure an unstamped press, partly successful when the stamp duty on newspapers was reduced to one penny in 1835. This campaign, with its combination of externally organized pressure coupled with parliamentary lobbying and support from inside the House of Commons provided the first model for what was to become Chartism. The NUWC was virtually reconstituted as the London Working Men's Association (LWMA) in June 1836 with William Lovett (1800–1877) as secretary.
In June 1837 a committee of six MPs and six working men, including Lovett, issued the Six Points, which became talismanic for the future movement: universal suffrage, which meant manhood suffrage; no property qualifications for MPs, so that any man might stand for the House of Commons; annual parliaments, so that MPs might become accountable to their constituents and that bribery might become ineffective; equal representation, so that the representation in Parliament might be proportionate to the people in the country (important for Ireland); payment of members, so men without private means might enter Parliament; and vote by ballot, so that illegitimate pressure could not be put on voters. The intention was thus not only to demand the central plank of manhood suffrage but also all those other measures necessary to make that a reality.
The draft bill itself was a lengthy and sophisticated document, going well beyond the Six Points, and it was to evolve over time to include important constitutional changes such as repeal of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland (1800). Long-term, the Charter drew on a tradition that went back to the later eighteenth century, strengthened in the wake of the French Revolution by Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, published in 1791–1792. But what gave the People's Charter additional edge was the Reform Act of 1832, which had transformed the parliamentary franchise in the boroughs, rationalizing it and putting it on the basis of a £10 property qualification. In practice, the Act confused the system rather than simplifying it, especially with its complicated system for voter registration, and having removed the sanctity of age from the nature of the voting qualification it almost invited further amendment. This the People's Charter sought to do. The idea was not unreasonable but it was perhaps wishful thinking to believe that the Charter would be carried, given the radical transformation to the representative system that it entailed.
Parallel with these developments, a similar movement appeared in Birmingham, where the local MP, Thomas Attwood (1783–1856), was disillusioned with the Reform Act. He had been a leader from 1830 to 1832 of the Birmingham Political Union (BPU), which had done a great deal to organize public opinion in favor of reform. The BPU was revived in May 1837 with a National Petition for parliamentary reform in the belief that what was widely regarded as the BPU's success in 1832 could be repeated. The BPU adopted the People's Charter on 14 May 1838 to secure the greatest possible popular support, and the National Petition and the People's Charter were formally endorsed at mass public meetings in Glasgow and Birmingham on 21 May and 6 August 1838, respectively. Lecturers were simultaneously sent out to rouse public opinion in the country.
A third source of Chartism was dissatisfaction with the social and economic conditions created by rapid industrialization and urbanization, especially in centers of textile manufacture in the Midlands, north of England, and western Scotland. Reformers believed, unlike modern historians, that the Reform Act had been a victory for the middle classes, whose possession of property had enabled them to elect a House of Commons to carry legislation specifically in their narrow class interests. Such "class legislation" included measures against trade unions, a reluctance to restrict working hours in factories, and, above all, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which removed the traditional parochial support for the poor and threatened them with either starvation or the workhouse. The attempt to introduce this system from 1837, just as a major depression hit industrial Britain, produced widespread disturbances that fed into popular support for a thorough reform of the House of Commons. The strategy here was to reinforce the National Petition and the People's Charter with a delegate meeting in London, the National Convention, which looked like a rival People's Parliament to challenge the legitimacy of the real one. This strategy was based on the successful Irish campaign of the 1820s that had by mass mobilization and threats of revolution secured a major constitutional change in 1829 with the Catholic Emancipation Act. The acknowledged leader was a former Irish MP, Feargus Edward O'Connor (1796–1855), whose father and uncle had been members of the United Irishmen during the revolutionary 1790s. His instruments were his own powerful oratory, especially outdoors when addressing mass meetings, and the Northern Star, begunasananti–Poor Law paper in Leeds in November 1837 but which under O'Connor's ownership rapidly became the main Chartist paper and the organ through which he came to dominate the movement.
The campaign to secure the Charter reached three peaks of activity, in 1839, 1842, and 1848, centered on the collection of signatures for the National Petition and the election of delegates to the Convention in London. On the first occasion there was a genuine mass movement as all sections of Chartism united at large public meetings where the Charter was proclaimed and delegates to the Convention elected by show of hands. The violent language used by some of the speakers at these meetings led to swift action by the local forces of law and order. Actual violence broke out sporadically, most notably in the mid-Wales textile district in April 1839. Troops were sent to control the Midlands and north of England. The situation was increasingly tense as 1,280,000 signatures were collected on the Petition and Convention delegates assembled in London to oversee the presentation of the Petition to Parliament. Strong language used in the debates about what to do if the Petition were rejected led to all but one of the BPU delegates resigning. Events were delayed by the collapse of the Whig government and the so-called Bedchamber Crisis, and the Convention moved to Birmingham. Here riots led to troops and the London police being called in, and William Lovett was arrested for his part in protesting against the violent conduct of the police. When the government crisis was over, the depleted Convention returned to London, the Petition was presented on 14 June, but in the ensuing debate was rejected by 235 votes to 46.
The problem was what to do next. The idea of a general strike failed in the midst of unemployment and trade-union skepticism. The strategy of mass action had made the word Chartism synonymous with violence, an image reinforced as some disillusioned delegates returned to their local areas to whip up further support. Frustration led to further violence, notably in the valleys of south Wales, where several thousand armed men marched on Newport on 4 November 1839. There were smaller attempted risings in the West Riding of Yorkshire and widespread arrests followed with both local and national leaders, including O'Connor, sent to jail, mostly for riot. There followed a lull in Chartist activity, but the movement was sustained, largely by the Northern Star and new local leaders who emerged to form in July 1840 the National Charter Association (NCA). Until 1848, Chartism as a movement was to be defined by the NCA and the Northern Star under the leadership of O'Connor, who emerged from jail on August 1841 with his reputation greatly enhanced by his "martyrdom."
The NCA began another Petition in the autumn of 1841. Other groups of Chartists who favored the alternative approaches of the defunct LWMA and BPU went their own ways. In April 1841, William Lovett set up the National Association to promote political education, but it made little headway. Birmingham reformers, led by the
Quaker philanthropist Joseph Sturge (1793–1859), formed the Complete Suffrage Union to unite middle- and working-class reformers in January 1842, but its petition was rejected in April 1842 by 226 votes to 67. The NCA in effect became Chartism. It arranged for a new Convention, which met in London in April 1842 and a new Petition, which was presented with 3,317,752 signatures on 2 May 1842—and rejected by 287 votes to 49. The mass strategy had again failed, despite better organization and the increased number of signatures which, if genuine, represented a majority of the adult working people of Britain (the movement never really caught on in Ireland) and certainly far outnumbered the official electorate of around one million in 1841. A summer of strikes and violence then spread throughout the industrial districts of the north of England, often led by local Chartists, although the motivation of the strikers was mainly economic. O'Connor made the mistake of associating the NCA leadership with the strikes just at the point when they were beginning to fail. Mass arrests and imprisonment again disrupted the movement, though this time O'Connor escaped jail on a technicality.
This marked the end of Chartism as a mass movement in many parts of the country. As economic conditions improved for the first time since late 1836, and as it became apparent that, far from Chartism being the key to unlock the door to social reform for the working classes, instead the way was open to piecemeal reform without the Charter: the Corn Law, which most Chartists wished to see abolished despite their suspicion of the motives of the factory masters who dominated the Anti–Corn Law League, was repealed in 1846, and the following year the Ten Hour Bill restricted hours of employment in factories. O'Connor turned his mind to another, more peaceful, strategy: a national lottery to raise money to settle the fortunate winners on the land, thus withdrawing surplus labor from the towns and improving conditions there while at the same time giving people the freedom and potential political power that came from holding a small piece of real estate. The Land Plan was an enormous success in maintaining Chartism and carrying it to parts of the country scarcely touched before, although it had little to do with the Charter and produced further divisions among the leadership. Ultimately the legal and financial problems of the Land Company took O'Connor's energies away from the needs of traditional Chartism and weakened his leadership at a critical point during the third and final Chartist crisis in 1848.
The third effort to call a Convention, raise a Petition, and secure the People's Charter began in 1847, when O'Connor was elected MP for Nottingham. This was followed by renewed industrial depression and then outbreaks of revolution in Europe. Serious rioting in Britain, notably in London in March 1848, were followed by a mass meeting on Kennington Common in south London on 10 April 1848, prior to a march on Parliament with the Petition, containing an alleged 5,700,000 signatures. Though both the meeting and the march were illegal, O'Connor negotiated permission to hold the meeting. When the giant Petition reached the House of Commons it was ridiculed, the number of signatures being reduced to "merely" 1,975,476—still twice the electorate—and it was rejected. Parliament was more concerned about the security situation in Ireland, which seemed to be following the Continental path to revolution. The Convention broke up in disagreement over what to do next. Some delegates reconvened in a provocatively named National Assembly; others went back to their local communities to hold mass meetings amid increasing threats of violence. The government struck hard throughout the summer, and mass arrests once more deprived Chartism of its effective leadership. This was the end of Chartism. The leaders emerged from jail into a world that was unwilling to rally to the old cause. The dominance of the NCA, the Northern Star, and Feargus O'Connor was broken, and what remained of the movement was fragmented, some seeking an accommodation with moderate reformers, some seeking piecemeal reform or joining single-issue campaigns for temperance or the final repeal of the newspaper stamp.
The reasons for the failure of Chartism are not hard to find. The initial strategy of the LWMA was unlikely to succeed but it was totally undermined by the mass campaign centered on O'Connor. The only chance for his alternative approach was if the government were genuinely cowed by the threat of numbers. It was not and had the means at its command to suppress what it could not dissuade. The strategy of so-called physical force was a gamble that failed and in failing it destroyed the alternative strategies. O'Connor was an inspiration to his followers but he could brook no rivals and so divided the leadership of the movement. Despite the NCA he was never able to turn mass mobilization from an agitation into an effective organization. Chartism was thus dependent on external factors, such as the state of the economy, and when that improved, and when piecemeal reforms began to be granted, it had no way of sustaining mass support in the face of repeated failure.
Yet the paradox is that Chartism was not a failure. It achieved none of its objectives and may have set some back by its identification of reform with violence, yet among its followers it created a popular political culture that over the next generation was to feed into the lowest levels of local government as democracy was extended—beginning with school boards after 1870. What was of long term significance was not the mass movement of the three peak years of petitioning, but the formation of local associations and "localities" of the NCA, where Chartist men and women lived out their democratic aspirations in the formation of what has been called a "Chartist culture." This often took its inspiration from Protestant nonconformity. None of the religious organizations endorsed Chartism, and the Chartists themselves came from many religious backgrounds—and none—but the traditions of the nonconformist chapel ran deep in many of the working-class communities where Chartism was strong. These traditions—of lay leadership, social meetings for mutual improvement, sermons that became lectures and Bible study that became reading, the Northern Star—helped Chartism become the means by which politics were embedded in community life.
Chartism has been claimed by many subsequent movements but it is hard to accept that specific later ideologies have an exclusive right to a Chartist pedigree. Chartism was a working-class movement in the sense that it appealed largely to working people. This is unsurprising given that over four-fifths of the population were wage earners and Chartism had widespread appeal, mainly to those below the top fifth. But Chartism was not the forerunner of the working-class movement later embodied in the twentieth-century Labor movement. The language of class was used, but as much by opponents who wished to belittle the Chartists as by the Chartists themselves. The latter more usually used the language of the people, by which they meant both the majority who lacked the vote and those in the voting classes who sympathized with them. Its strategy was to adopt a language that deliberately avoided class. Equally, Chartism was not a socialist movement. Some leaders—James O'Brien (1804–1864) and Ernest Charles Jones (1819–1869), for example—might sometimes use the language of socialist economics but not in a consistent or "modern" sense. Chartists were opposed to the exploitative capitalism of factory masters but they were not anticapitalist as such. The great majority of the factory "proletariat" at this time were women and children; many workingmen Chartists were small producers still owning some of their own means of production or aspiring to do so. O'Connor's peasant ideal was still close to many hearts.
Chartism was also not the forerunner of anything resembling modern feminism. Although some of its leaders—including William Lovett—favored universal suffrage, the program of the Chartists was only for manhood suffrage, by which was meant the people as represented through adult males. The language of domesticity and separate spheres was dominant, as women sought through their families those social and economic benefits which it was believed would be brought by the suffrage. Women were part of the early mass movement and local Chartist activities, but they had little place in its formal structures. So long as men and women were equally deprived, the separate issue of individual female enfranchisement was rarely advanced within Chartism.
So Chartism was many of the things that a later century was to find important. It was an agitation that achieved remarkable maturity in its response to the Reform Act of 1832 through a campaign to secure for the ordinary working people of Britain the advantages of democracy against the perceived political influence of the emerging new urban elites of industrialists, merchants, and larger shopkeepers. Despite its failure, Chartism created a political culture that was to shape the semidemocratic dawn in Britain as the franchise was extended at local and then national levels between 1867 and 1918. Though former Chartists were to place themselves in both Liberal and Tory parties—and some were to live long enough to join various socialist or Labor parties—the democratic ethos of Chartism largely contributed to Liberal Britain. But the vitality of Chartist political culture was such that popular politics were never completely subsumed within "popular Liberalism." It maintained instead a watchful and troublesome democratic presence on the progressive fringe of British political life.
Allen, J., and Ashton, O., eds. Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press. Rendlesham, U.K., 2005. Essays on aspects of the Chartist press.
Ashton, Owen, Robert Fyson, and Stephen Roberts, eds. The Chartist Legacy. Woodbridge, U.K., 1999. Further thematic essays.
Briggs, Asa, ed. Chartist Studies. London, 1959. A collection of essays, mainly local studies that stress the economic background to Chartism.
Epstein, James. The Lion of Freedom: Feargus O'Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832–1842. London, 1982. A major attempt to rehabilitate O'Connor as a positive figure in Chartism.
Epstein, James, and Dorothy Thompson, eds. The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830–1860. London, 1982. A collection of thematic and local essays that exemplify the political and cultural approach, in contrast to the Briggs collection, above.
Finn, Margot C. After Chartism: Class and Nation in English Radical Politics, 1848–1874. Cambridge, U.K., 1993. Includes an interpretation of later Chartism and the impact of international concerns.
Goodway, David. London Chartism, 1838–1848. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. A major study of the key area omitted from earlier regional studies.
Jones, David J. V. Chartism and the Chartists. London, 1975. A thematic interpretation that advanced the view of Chartism as a political and cultural movement.
——. The Last Rising: The Newport Insurrection of 1839. Oxford, U.K., 1985. A major reassessment.
Jones, Gareth Stedman. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History, 1832–1982. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.
Pickering, Paul A. Chartism and the Chartists in Manchester and Salford. New York, 1995. An important study of Chartist activity and culture in a key provincial center.
Roberts, Stephen, ed. The People's Charter: Democratic Agitation in Early Victorian Britain. London, 2003. Reprints of eight of the more important recent articles on Chartism.
Royle, Edward. Chartism. New York, 1980. 3rd ed. 1997. A brief overview and thematic survey with illustrative sources.
Schoyen, Albert Robert. The Chartist Challenge: A Portrait of George Julian Harney. London, 1958. Contains a great deal about Chartism, especially its international aspects.
Schwartzkopf, Jutta. Women in the Chartist Movement. London, 1991. A feminist perspective.
Taylor, Miles. Ernest Jones, Chartism, and the Romance of Politics, 1819–1869. Oxford, U.K., 2003. Reinterprets the former socialist hero of Chartism.
Thompson, Dorothy. The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution. London, 1984. Thematic chapters offering the fullest reinterpretation of Chartism along political and cultural lines.
Thompson, Dorothy, ed. The Early Chartists. London, 1971. A collection of sources to challenge the traditional interpretation.
Ward, John Towers. Chartism. London, 1973. A chronological survey history of a traditional kind.
The chartists were so named because they formulated their demands in a six-point charter: universal (manhood) suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by (secret) ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment of MPs, and equal electoral districts. The object was to make the charter the law of the land by legal, constitutional means if possible, or by force if necessary—or by a mixture of both: ‘peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.’ Great efforts were made to collect support for a petition to the House of Commons on behalf of the charter, but on each occasion the House rejected its demands. Alternative methods were therefore advocated. There were plans for making the central body of chartist delegates, the national convention, a people's parliament which would bypass Westminster; a general strike (‘national holiday’) was attempted in August 1839; and local riots, and perhaps an abortive insurrection (the Newport rising) in November 1839, showed that ‘physical force’ might not be ruled out.
In its origins chartism was an umbrella movement which drew together many strands of radical grievance. In London and the provinces Working Men's Associations were formed in 1837, building on the remains of earlier radical reform organizations. In Birmingham, the movement at first was closely allied with middle-class radicals and currency reformers. In Leeds, Owenite socialists combined with middle-class radicals and physical-force militants to launch the Leeds Working Men's Association. In other towns of the West Riding and the industrial North local movements and grievances (including the 1834 New Poor Law) provided a basis for chartism, which was thus not so much a national movement as a series of local and regional movements, loosely federated. This posed a problem of concerted action which was never solved. Attempts to build a national organization repeatedly fell apart; and the most effective link between chartists was the widely read chartist newspaper the Northern Star.
The geography of chartism reflected the national economic and social structure. Wherever there was a substantial number of skilled artisans, especially shoemakers, printers, tailors, and cabinet-makers, a chartist organization on the lines of the Working Men's Associations was to be expected, with an emphasis on self-help, independence, and propaganda for universal suffrage. Such was the movement in London or Birmingham. But in areas where there were substantial numbers of distressed hand-loom weavers or framework-knitters (as in Lancashire, the West Riding, and the midlands) chartism assumed a fiercer visage and adopted a more strident tone, expressed in mass demonstrations and torchlight meetings on the moors.
Just as the local variations of chartism were related to the structure of the economy, so the chronology of the movement reflected the cycle of booms and slumps between 1836 and 1851. The first climax of chartism came in the winter of 1839 during a severe trade depression. In 1842 a second peak of chartist activity was reached, arising out of mass unemployment in the northern towns. The last great flare-up of chartism came in 1848, following a winter of economic recession and inspired by revolutions on the continent. In periods of relative prosperity (1843–7 and after 1848) chartism lost its mass support. It then became a movement promoting education, temperance, municipal reforms, and settlement on the land—while never losing faith that universal suffrage would some day, somehow, be won. After 1848, as a curious epilogue, a group of chartists tried to steer the movement towards socialism and the international working-class movement of Marx and Engels.
Though the chartists failed at the time to achieve their six points, they were, with the exception of annual parliaments, realized later.
John F. C. Harrison
Ward, J. T. , Chartism (1973).
Chart·ism / ˈchärtˌizəm/ • n. a UK parliamentary reform movement of 1837–48, the principles of which were set out in a manifesto called The People's Charter . DERIVATIVES: Chart·ist n. & adj.