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Chartism A Movement Born Of Working Class History Essay

Chartism was a movement born of working class resentment at their exclusion from the newly expanded franchise. It was possibly the first mass working class labour movement in the world. There were two ideological views in Chartism; "physical force" or "moral force", depending upon one’s attitudes to violent protest. It was particularly active during times in which the economy was doing badly. For example, during the economic downturns of 1838-39; 1842; 1847-48. The movement of Chartism did not last; its high point could be said to be 1848. This essay will examine the movement; its beginning to its end and whether it can be definitively said to have either succeeded or failed.

The movement was inspired by the failure of the Great Reform to recognise the working class. The reform act, once passed, meant that the issue of rotten boroughs was dealt with; highly populated areas received representation more appropriate to their size. Middle class males were enfranchised; all householders paying a yearly rental of £10 and, if they had been resident for a year, lodgers paying £10 received the vote. This, however, meant that the working class was excluded from the vote. Those living in cities were still not adequately represented and MPs still did not receive a salary- they also had to own land to be able to stand. This brought to an end the alliance between the middle class and the working class. The working class was resentful of what they saw as a betrayal by the middle class; without their pressure and campaigning, the government would not have felt such an urgent need to reform. This, understandably, caused discontent within the working class. They had been instrumental in the campaign to gain the vote.

Chartism’s origins lie in London and Birmingham. The London Working Men’s Association (founded in 1836) and the Birmingham Political Union focussed on this failure of the act to do something for the working class. [1] The London Working Men’s Association composed what would eventually become “The People’s Charter” during 1837.

As Preston W. Slosson wrote,

“While the phrasing of the People's Charter varied somewhat at different periods, the text of the 1837 petition of the London Working­men's Association is typical of later forms.” [2] A national meeting to promote the “Charter” was held in 1837 and also 1838.

In May 1838 Henry Vincent was arrested for making inflammatory speeches. He was tried and found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in jail. He was not allowed access to writing materials and only books on religion were available to hm. Chartists in Wales were furious and subsequently, violence broke out. John Frost made speeches across Wales, advocating against breaking the law. He instead felt that a protest would better serve to indicate the strength of the outrage this sentence had caused. The protest was to take place in Newport, where the release of Vincent would be demanded. The authorities in Newport grew fearful when news of this planned protest reached them and when the protesters arrived they discovered that more arrests had been made and that some of their number were being held in Westgate Hotel. Soldiers had been placed inside the Westgate Hotel and when the order was given they began firing into the crowd. Several of the men, including John Frost, were charged with high treason and found guilty. They were to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The sentences led to many protests taking place across the country. The government debated the sentences and announced that in lieu of execution they would be transported for life. On the 6 August 1838 the two groups formally adopted the 6 points of the Charter. Soon, it could be seen that the working class public approved of the charter despite the fact that Radicals saw it as overly moderate and did not entirely approve. A large meeting was held on Kersal Moor, Lancashire on 24 September 1838 which attracted many people from all over the country. Rallies were also held throughout 1848 in Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds.

A National Convention gathered in London on February 4, 1839. After the best part of a year collecting signatures for their first great petition, the Chartists met to prepare its submission to Parliament. The movement organised a group of 50 members to better co-ordinate the presentation of the petition.

The first Convention would end badly. Rioting in Birmingham led to the arrest and imprisonment of the Convention's secretary and the author of the Charter, William Lovett. Arrests were made in Birmingham in July, due to the defiance by supporters of a ban on meetings. A week after this, a motion to consider the petition was rejected by 235 votes against to 46 for. After this event, many came to believe that violence was the only way to succeed. Violence broke out in many areas and as a result, arrests followed.

The National Charter Association was formed in July 1840 “from the wreckage of the previous year to co-ordinate future activities” [3] as Eric J. Evans states. The party’s administrative concerns were overseen by a convention of delegates chosen by the local Charter associations. The organisation was the result of the London Working Men’s Association, led by William Lovett and Henry Vincent, and the Birmingham Political Union, including Thomas Atwood and John Collins, joining forces and also unions organised by Feargus O'Connor. These merged groups became known as the National Charter Association. To join, one had to purchase a membership card (renewed four times a year).The association elected an executive, which had the use of half the funds of the association. Feargus O’ Connor was instrumental in holding it together- this was due to his charisma and his newspaper, the Chartist Northern Star which were both prominent aspects of the movement in the coming decade. [4] O’ Connor organised another National Convention. However, it was organised only for members of the National Charter Association. A second petition was presented to Parliament; this was rejected with 287 votes against to 49 votes for.

On 10 April 1848, a mass meeting was organised on Kennington Common, the objective of which was to gather a procession to present another petition to Parliament. The number of attendees was disputed; O'Connor estimated 300,000; the government, 15,000. It is most likely that 150,000 attended. The government did not believe that the Chartists intended to organise an uprising, but they did fear that a revolution would occur and were therefore determined to make a display of strength to counter the possibility and also potentially get rid of Chartism in a year in which revolutions were taking place across Europe. The military were prepared to act were the Chartists to try and cross the Thames. The petition was estimated to have only around two million signatures, while O’ Connor claimed the number was around five million. The signatures included those dead and people such as “Queen Victoria”. While this was a source of ridicule for the Chartists, it is possible such signatures were the result of many being illiterate or at threat from their employers were they found to support such a movement. However, Chartism was not destroyed by the ignominy.

The question of whether Chartism succeeded or failed is a divisive one, and additionally depends on the way in which one defines the terms. There are many contesting opinions on the issue. In a literal sense, the movement undeniably failed in its goals. The movement achieved little with regards to the government; the constitution was not amended, per the suggestion of Engels. It also did not itself achieve any of the six aims laid out in its Charter. The abolition of the property qualification for MPs was achieved in 1858; universal male suffrage was achieved in stages in 1867/8, 1884, 1918, 1928; the secret ballot was gained in 1872 and a salary for MPs in 1911.

The last time it could have been said to have presented a significant challenge to authority is in 1848, the year generally seen as its climactic year. There are several different opinions on the legacy of Chartism.

Edward Royle argues against the attribution of the later achievement of these aims to the movement;

“…To say that the Ballot Act and other measures came after Chartism and were therefore caused by Chartism is fallacious. These Acts cannot even remotely be attributed to Chartist pressure. It would be more accurate to say that the Ballot Act would probably have come earlier had it not been for Chartism…” [5] 

However, he does concede that Chartism was successful in some respects. He states that it had a “powerful political impact, bringing a new urgency to the philanthropic impulses of private individuals and the reforming tendencies of those in government”. [6] He states that the Ballot Act may have come earlier had it not been for the movement; the tactics employed by the movement were not always those that would have been best recommended. Events such as those with the petition with the forged signatures of the dead and the non-existent damaged its reputation.

Eric J. Evans argues that the movement should not be judged by how much of a threat it was but rather as an important political education of working class people. He writes that,

“…Chartism imbued its adherents with both a cultural identity and a strong sense of hope which transcended immediate failures. Nothing in working-class politics would be unaffected by the Chartist experience…” [7] 

As Evans states, the movement had a profound effect on working class politics. The experience of Chartism educated the people and Slosson agrees on this point:

“…The un­en­fran­chised class­es had come to know them­selves; to be con­scious both of their strength and of their weak­ness. The very faults and blun­ders which wrecked Char­tism have been turned to good ac­count as a warn­ing to lat­er work­ing-‌class move­ments. If the Chartist move­ment did not im­me­di­ate­ly ob­tain for Eng­land the Char­ter, at least it or­ga­nized the peo­ple to make full use of democ­ra­cy when it came…” [8] 

He acknowledges the fact that the movement made mistakes, did things wrong and states that these in fact educated the working class movements to come on what actions were and were not inadvisable. While this aspect is a failure, the objective of Chartism was to gain social-economic betterment for the class using political power as a means to and end, and to such an end even the failure of the movement can be seen as a success in that it provided lessons to future movements seeking the same goals. Aspects of the ideology of Chartism can be seen in these future movements; eventually, their six points were realised and it is arguable (and indeed has been argued) that Chartism was the inspiration behind this. Even despite the fact that Edward Royle believes that one cannot state that Chartism has any responsibility for the passing of the acts, he does not deny the importance of the movement itself which was significant. John K. Walton states that:

“…It did not achieve any of the Six Points and after its defeat lost from view for half a century; but without its surging and intermittent threat it is hard to imagine the governments of the 1840s making the concessions they did. Chartism declined, in part, because some of the goals that drew people into the movement had been attained. To ask why Chartism failed is to misunderstand its nature; the interesting questions are about the extent to which it succeeded…” [9] 

While the three do not entirely agree, a consistent theme in their commentary is that it did have some success and did have at least some lasting effect on the political landscape. In Walton’s commentary, he states that what is seen as part of its failure (I.e. the decline of the movement) is in fact a consequence of its success; people had achieved their ends and therefore departed, having achieved their ends. I believe therefore that it can be stated that the movement was in fact successful.

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