Definitions

Chartism

Chartism

[chahr-tiz-uhm]
Chartism, workingmen's political reform movement in Great Britain, 1838-48. It derived its name from the People's Charter, a document published in May, 1838, that called for voting by ballot, universal male suffrage, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, no property qualifications for members of Parliament, and payment of members. The charter was drafted by the London Working Men's Association, an organization founded (1836) by William Lovett and others, but the movement gathered momentum largely because of the fervor and rhetorical talents of Feargus O'Connor. He traveled widely, especially in the north, where recurrent economic depressions and the constraints of the new poor law (1834) had bred especially deep discontent, and recruited support for the charter. In Aug., 1838, the charter was adopted at a national convention of workingmen's organizations in Birmingham. The following February another convention, calling itself the People's Parliament, met in London. A Chartist petition was presented to Parliament (and summarily rejected), but the convention rapidly lost support as the multiplicity of aims among its members and rivalries among its leaders became apparent. Riots in July and a confrontation between Chartist miners and the military at Newport, Wales, in November led to the arrest of most of the Chartist leaders by the end of 1839. In 1840, O'Connor founded the National Charter Association (NCA) in an attempt to centralize the organization of the movement, but most of the other leaders refused to support his efforts. It was the NCA that drafted and presented to Parliament the second Chartist petition in 1842. It too was overwhelmingly rejected. By this time the vitality of Chartism was being undermined by a revival of trade unionism, the growth of the Anti-Corn Law League, and a trend toward improvement in working-class economic conditions. O'Connor began to devote himself to a scheme for settling laborers on the land as small holders. The last burst of Chartism was sparked by an economic crisis in 1847-48. In Apr., 1848, a new convention was summoned to London to draft a petition, and a mass demonstration and procession planned to present the petition to Parliament. The authorities took extensive precautions against trouble, but the demonstration was rained out and the procession, which had been forbidden, did not take place. This fiasco marked the end of Chartism in London, although the movement survived for a while in some other parts of the country.

See A. Briggs, ed., Chartist Studies (1959); M. Hovell, The Chartist Movement (3d ed. 1967); J. T. Ward, Chartism (1973); D. Goodway, London Chartism, 1838-1848 (1982); C. Godfrey, Chartist Lives (1987).

British working-class movement for parliamentary reform. It was named after the People's Charter, a bill drafted by William Lovett (1800–1877) in 1838 that demanded universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annually elected Parliaments, payment of members of Parliament, and abolition of property qualifications for membership. Born amid an economic depression, the movement rose to national importance under the leadership of Feargus O'Connor. Parliament refused to take action on three Chartist petitions presented to it, and the movement declined after 1848.

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For chartism in financial markets see technical analysis, and for the British socialist journal, see Chartist (magazine)
Chartism was a movement for political and social reform in the United Kingdom during the mid-19th century between 1838 and 1848. It takes its name from the People's Charter of 1838, which stipulated the six main aims of the movement as:

  • Suffrage for all men age 21 and over (not to be confused with Universal Suffrage)
  • Equal-sized electoral districts
  • Voting by secret ballot
  • An end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament
  • Pay for Members of Parliament
  • Annual election of Parliament

Chartism was possibly the first mass working class labour movement in the world. Its leaders have often been described as either "physical-" or "moral-force" leaders, depending upon their attitudes to violent protest.

Origin

Chartism followed earlier Radical movements, such as the Birmingham Political Union which demanded a widening of the franchise, and came after the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which gave the vote to a section of the male middle classes, but not to the "working class" which was then, because of social and industrial conditions, emerging from artisan and labouring classes. Many Radicals made speeches on the "betrayal" of the working class and the "sacrificing" of their "interests" by the "misconduct" of the government, in conjunction with this model. D.C. Moore, however, cites that the enfranchisement is better understood with a five tier model consisting of Upper, Upper and Lower Middle and Upper and Lower Working classes. Using this model, The Upper and Upper Middle classes had gained the vote after the Reform Act 1832, and it was the lower middle and upper working classes that joined the Chartist movement. The Lower working class, Moore states, were not educated sufficiently to see any interest in, and thus involve themselves with, the movement.

Chartism included a wide range of organisations. Hence it can be seen as not so much a movement as an era in popular politics in Britain. Dorothy Thompson described the theme of her book The Chartists as the time when "thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organisation of the country."

In 1837, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett, (from the London Working Men's Association, set up in 1836) formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter, containing the six objectives listed above.

The first wave

When these demands were first published in May, 1838, they received a lukewarm response from Northern Star's Feargus O'Connor and other Radicals, being seen as too moderate (Thompson, 1984, p.58). But it soon became clear that the charter had struck a chord among common people. A large meeting was held on Kersal Moor, Salford, Lancashire on 1838-09-28 which attracted a large crowd to listen to speakers from all over the country. Speaking in favour of universal suffrage Joseph Rayner Stephens was quoted as saying that Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question"

Dorothy Thompson quotes John Bates as saying:

There were [radical] associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on... The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the People's Charter was drawn up... clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres....

The movement organised a convention of 50 to facilitate the presentation of the petition. This met in London from February, 1839 until May, when it moved to Birmingham. Though they took pains to keep within the law, the more radical activists were able to see it as the embryo of an alternative parliament (John Charlton, The Chartists p. 19). The convention called for a number of "ulterior measures" which ranged from calling on their supporters to withdraw their money from saving banks to a call for a sacred month, in effect a general strike. Meetings were held around the country and in June, 1839 a large petition was presented to the House of Commons. Parliament, by a large majority, voted not to even hear the petitioners. When the petition was refused, many advocated the widespread use of force as the only means of attaining their aims.

Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to several arrests and trials. One of the leaders of the movement, John Frost, on trial for treason, claimed in his defence that he had toured his territory of industrial Wales urging people not to break the law, although he was himself guilty of using language that some might interpret as being a call to arms. Frost's attitudes and stance, often seen as ambivalent, after setbacks and violence including loss of life, led another Chartist to describe Frost as putting 'a sword in my hand and a rope around my neck'. Nevertheless, Frost had placed himself in the vanguard of the Chartist movement by 1839. When another prominent member, Henry Vincent, was arrested in the summer of 1839 for making inflammatory speeches, the die was cast.

Instead of the carefully plotted military rising that some had suspected, Frost led a column of marchers through South Wales to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, Monmouthshire where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost's frequent personal conflicts with various influential members of the local establishment; others, that Chartist leaders were expecting the Chartists to seize the town, preventing the mail reaching London and triggering a national uprising: it is generally acknowledged that Frost and other Chartist leaders did not agree on the course of action adopted.

The result was a disaster in political and military terms. The hotel was occupied not only by the representatives of the town's merchant classes and the local squirearchy, but by sixty or more armed soldiers. A brief, violent, and bloody battle ensued. Shots were fired by both sides, although most contemporaries agree that the soldiers holding the building had vastly superior firepower. The Chartists did manage to enter the building temporarily, but were forced to retreat in disarray: twenty were killed, another fifty wounded.

Testimonies exist from contemporaries, such as the Yorkshire Chartist Ben Wilson, that Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising if successful. Instead Chartism slipped into a period of internal division and acrimonious debate as to the way forward with many of its leaders arrested, imprisoned and facing serious charges.

In early-May, 1842, a further petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, which was yet again rejected by Parliament. The Northern Star commented on the rejection:

Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the 'House' has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.

The depression of 1841–1842 led to a wave of strikes in which Chartist activists were in the forefront, and demands for the charter were included alongside economic demands. In 1842, workers went on strike in the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and parts of Scotland in favour of Chartist principles. These industrial disputes were collectively known as the Plug Plot; as in many cases, protesters removed the plugs from steam boilers powering industry to prevent their use. Although the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, advocated a non-interventionalist policy, the Duke of Wellington insisted on the deployment of mounted cavalry and armed troops to deal with the strikers. Several Chartist leaders, including Feargus O'Connor, George Julian Harney, and Thomas Cooper were arrested, along with nearly 1,500 others. 79 people were sentenced, with sentences ranging from 7 to 21 years, transportation to Australia and even death.

Despite this second set of arrests, Chartist activity continued. Beginning in 1843, O'Connor suggested that the land contained the solution to workers' problems. This idea evolved into the Chartist Co-Operative Land Company, later called the National Land Company. Workers would buy shares in the company, and the company would use those funds to purchase estates that would be subdivided into 2, 3, and 4 acre (8,000, 12,400 and 16,000 m²) lots. Between 1844 and 1848, five estates were purchased, subdivided, and built on, and then settled by lucky shareholders, who were chosen by lot. Unfortunately for O'Connor, in 1848 a Select Committee was appointed to investigate the financial viability of the scheme, and it was ordered to shut down. Cottages built by the Chartist Land Company are still standing and inhabited today in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and on the outskirts of London. Rosedene, a Chartist cottage in Dodford, Worcestershire, is owned and maintained by the National Trust, and is open to visitors by appointment.

The Chartists also stood in general elections, from the election of 1841 to the election of 1859, and O'Connor was elected in the general election of 1847. Harney stood for Election against Lord Palmerston in Tiverton, Devon in 1847.

The 1848 petition

At the start of 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto in London, advocating a European revolution. It was to be led by the workers of the countries most advanced towards capitalism. In the following months Paris, Berlin, Vienna and finally Italy erupted into revolution although it is debated how much effect the Communist Manifesto had on these events.

On 10 April, 1848, Feargus O'Connor organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The estimate of the number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000, which was more accurate). According to John Charlton the government was well aware that the Chartists had no intention of staging an uprising as they had established an extensive network of spies. However, they were very afraid that they could have been mis-informed or that a revolution would start spontaneously. To counter this threat they organised a very large show of force. 8,000 soldiers were in London that day, along with 150,000 special constables. In any case, the meeting was peaceful. However the military had threatened to intervene if the Chartists made any attempt to cross the Thames.

In a separate incident, rioters in Manchester attempted to storm the hated workhouse. A pitched battle resulted with Chartists fighting the police, eventually the mob was broken up, but rioters roamed the streets of Manchester for three days.

The original plan of the Chartists, if the petition was ignored, was to create a separate national assembly and press the Queen to dissolve parliament until the charter was introduced into law. However the Chartists were plagued with indecision, and the national assembly eventually dissolved itself, claiming lack of support.

The petition O'Connor presented to Parliament was claimed to have only 1,957,496 signatures – far short of the 5,706,000 he had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries (some of the false signatories included Queen Victoria, Mr Punch and 'Pugnose'). However, O'Connor argued that many people were illiterate, and did not know how to write their own signatures, and so had to copy someone else's. O'Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, but the movement continued for some years, with the final National Convention being held in 1858

Legacy

The apparent failure of Chartism as a political movement in the mid-nineteenth Century proved not to be the case. Five of the six points in the Charter were adopted by 1918.

Middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for universal franchise, and were joined by some supporters of the Anti-Corn Law League, with John Bright and the Reform League agitating in the country. The parliamentary Radicals joined with the a section of the Whig Party and the anti-protectionist Tory Peelites to form the Liberal Party by 1859. The Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, a former Tory, introduced the Reform Bill of 1866, which did not pass the Commons and forced the resignation of the government.

However, Benjamin Disraeli's ensuing (minority) Conservative government carried through the Reform Act of 1867, doubling the electorate in the process. Furthermore, the Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret ballot. Only the last of the Chartist aims – annual Parliaments – never came to pass.

Chartism was also an important influence in the British colonies. In 1854 Chartist demands were put forward by the miners at the Eureka Stockade on the gold fields at Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. Within one year of the military suppression of the Eureka revolt, all the demands, except annual parliaments, had been met.

In these ways, Chartism left deep and permanent mark on the course of social history in Britain and beyond. It was the first widespread and sustained effort of working class self-help directed at reforming parliamentary democracy and the constitution. It gave impetus to eventual political reform and to trade union organisation and is therefore of lasting importance to social historians.

See also

Notes

References

  • Rosenblatt, Frank F. (2006). The Chartist Movement, Taylor & Francis, 256 pages ISBN 0415381932 (online preview)
  • Charlton, John (1997). The Chartists. The First National Workers' Movement, Pluto Press, 110 pages ISBN 0745311830 (online preview)
  • Scheckner, Peter (1989). An Anthology of Chartist Poetry. Poetry of the British Working Class, 1830s-1850s, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 353 pages ISBN 0838633455 (online preview)
  • Thompson, Dorothy (1984). The Chartists. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0-394-72474-7
  • Goodway, David (1982). London Chartism, 1838-1848, Cambridge University Press, 333 pages ISBN 052189364X (online preview)

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