Radical British democratic movement, mainly of the working classes, which flourished around 1838 to 1848. It derived its name from the People's Charter, a six-point programme comprising universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, secret ballot, annual parliaments, and abolition of the property qualification for, and payment of, members of Parliament.
The movement grew out of the London Working Men's Association, formed in 1836 by William Lovett. Two petitions were presented to Parliament (in 1839 and 1842), and were rejected. Under the leadership of the Irish parliamentarian Fergus O'Connor, Chartism became a powerful expression of working class frustration, and a third petition, also rejected, was presented in 1848. The long-term failure of the movement was probably due to greater prosperity among the populace as a whole, lack of organization, and rivalry among the leadership of the movement.
Background to the movement Chartism grew out of anger at the limited extension of the franchise offered by the 1832 Reform Act, popular hostility to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and the failure of the Luddites and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU), which led many working-class activists to abandon economic action (trade unionism) and espouse political action. Behind it lay working-class anger at the broader developments in society – the poor working and living conditions of the Industrial Revolution, class differences, and grinding poverty.
Activity The petition to Parliament of July 1839 was signed by 1.28 million people, the petition of May 1842 by more than 3 million. Both were rejected and a division grew up in the movement between the moderates, led by radicals such as Francis Place, Thomas Attwood, and William Lovett, who believed in using only peaceful ‘moral force’ (also called ‘New Move Chartism’), and those who were willing to use the threat of physical force as a bargaining tool – most without seriously contemplating its use – led by activists such as Fergus O'Connor. After the rejection of the 1839 petition, there was a failed Chartist uprising in Newport, South Wales. After the 1842 failure, there were strikes and riots in Scotland, Wales, Yorkshire, and the Midlands; and in the so-called Plug Plots, Lancashire Chartists removed the plugs from the boilers of factory steam engines.
Decline of the movement For many workers, Chartism was only one movement among many movements demanding their support, including the cooperative movement and the Anti-Corn Law League. An increase in prosperity also allowed the development of the New Model unions. Most of all, the government used troops and police to defeat the movement: ‘Fools – we have the physical force, not they, ’ commented the leader of the troops sent to put down Chartist rioters. Most workers were not prepared to fight to the death for the petitions, and there was little bloodshed during the Chartist agitation. In the Newport rising, a number of Chartists were killed, and the three leaders were transported. About 60 Chartists were transported to Australia after an armed rising in 1842.
The march and mass demonstration planned in support of the third Chartist petition caused the government great alarm, and they threatened to use the military against any demonstration. Faced with military action, Fergus O'Connor instead took the petition to Parliament by taxi. When it was delivered, it was found to contain 2 million signatures, not 5 million as claimed, and – since the petition had been collected by largely illiterate people – included such bogus signatures as ‘the Duke of Wellington’ and ‘Queen Victoria’. The charter was rejected, and the movement was humiliated, and collapsed.
Many free emigrants to Australia in this period also supported Chartism, the principles of which appeared in associations such as the Ballarat Reform League (1854) and influenced the leaders of the Eureka Stockade. In Britain, many of the Chartists' demands were later introduced gradually.
Parliamentary reform, 1832
Electoral reform, 1832
Merchants, Tradesmen, and Working Men, Inhabitants of Manchester: Chartist poster
Manchester Police: Warrant for Peter Mc Douall's arrest
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