Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Chartism is thought to originate from the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which gave the vote to the majority of the male middle classes, but not to the 'working class'. Many people made speeches on the 'betrayal' of the working class and the 'sacrificing' of their 'interests' by the 'misconduct' of the government.
Chartism included a wide range of organizations. Hence it can be seen as not so much a movement as an era in popular politics in Britain and Dorothy Thompson described the theme of her book "The Chartists" as the time when "For a short period, thousands of working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organization of the country."
In 1838, six members of Parliament and six working-men formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter, containing the following objectives:
- Universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21
- Equal-sized electoral districts
- Voting by secret ballot
- An end to the need of MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election
- Pay for MPs
- Annual Parliaments
The First Wave
When these demands were first published in May 1838 they received a lukewarm response by Feargus O'Connor's Northern Star and other radicals [D Thompson p58] being seen as too moderate. But it soon became clear that the charter had struck a chord amongst common people. 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 Peoples 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 centers..."
The movement organized a convention of 50 to facilitate the presetation of the petition. This which 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 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 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, 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 to the Westgate Hotel, Newport where he initiated a confrontation. Some have suggested that the roots of this confrontation lay in Frost's frequent personal conflicts with various 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 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. Instead Chartism slipped into a period of internal division and acrimonious debate as to the way forward.
Despite this, 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 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 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.
The 1848 Petition
On the 10th of April 1848, Feargus O'Connor organised a mass meeting on Kennington Common, which would form a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The number of attendees varies depending on the source (O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000; The Sunday Observer suggested 50,000 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 and extensive network of spies. The government did however orgainise a very large show of force, as 8,000 soldiers were in London that day, along with 150,000 special constables. In any case, the meeting was peaceful.
The petition O'Connor presented to Parliament was claimed to have only 1,957,496 signatures – far short of the 5,706,000 O'Connor had stated and many of which were discovered to be forgeries. O'Connor has been accused of destroying the credibility of Chartism, but the movement continued strongly for some months afterwards before it petered out.
However, the aims of Chartism were taken on as policies by political parties, most notably the Liberal Party. Only the last of their aims – annual Parliaments – remains unfulfilled.
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 in 1854. Within one year of the military crushing of the Eureka revolt, all the demands, except annual parliaments, had been met.
- The-six-points from CHARTIST ANCESTORS
- Punch Series on "Great Chartest Demonstrations"
- Illustrated London News, April 15th, 1848
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