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What exactly was Chartism and what caused it?

A movement engineered and controlled by working men to achieve parliamentary democracy as a step towards social and economic reform.


Although the Charter was a political document, the essential aim of the movement was economical.


Chartism means the bitter discontent grown fierce and mad, the wrong condition, therefore, of the working classes of England. It is a new name for a thing which has had many names, which will yet have many. The matter of Chartism is weighty, deep rooted, far-extending, did not begin yesterday, will by no means end this day or tomorrow.

All the above are contemporary views of what Chartism was. The three differing definitions show how the complex the question of Chartism was. It was a force which reflected its age, an age of decadence and was arguably an emotional reaction rather than a rational one. Arguably Chartism rather than being an arrogant demand for a specific objective was really a movement founded on previous failures and was essentially a cry for help. It was a cosmopolitan, variable movement rather than a united, coherent one. Lovett and Place, the two artisan authors of the Charter from London involved themselves in Chartism for different reasons from those of O'Connor and O'Brien, two Northern members belonging to the newly emerged working class.

Chartism was as complex as the age that produced it. The causes of it can be divided into those belonging to a superstructure (i.e., the general, national causes) and those belonging to an infrastructure (i.e., the regional causes). The many regional causes were diverse, distinct and often mutually cancelling. Therefore, given the diversity of Chartism one common cause cannot be attributed to it. To do this would be to deny Chartism of its identity and reduce it to a simplicity beyond recognition. In traditional radical London the artisans saw the Charter as the answer to their problems created by mechanisation in the industrial North. However, the working classes of the North, the Midlands and Wales saw it as the answer to problems created by Protectionism such as unemployment, exploitation of labour, bad health and housing as shown in Dickens' "Coketown" in Hard Times. The Northerners wanted the vote to achieve social and economic reform whereas the Southerners, predominantly artisan population saw the vote as the natural end product of the work started by Paine, Hardy and Cartwright. Therefore, Mrs Gaskell's North and South was truly reflected in Chartism as the South was certainly far more economically comfortable than the North.

There were many economic and social reasons for Chartism. Industrial and agricultural workers disliked the new conditions of the nineteenth century factory discipline such as low wages, periodic unemployment, long hours and bad working conditions. It is interesting to note that the three Chartist petitions coincided with the slump-boom cycle of the economy. The Northern "hands" were beginning to resent the widening gulf between the rich and poor as displayed in Disraeli's "Sybil". The artisan population were perhaps not suffering from problems within the factories but from hardships which were a result of the factory age. Their domestic handcrafts were being ousted out by the vast mechanisation, a problem which the London silk weavers faced. Therefore, the artisans were opposed to mechanisation where as the 'hands' merely wanted a better deal from that mechanisation. This was proved by the plug rioters in Manchester who merely temporarily stopped the machines and did not break them up like the earlier Luddittes. The luxury products produced by the artisan workers would not be of great demand during a recession.

The industrial "hands" saw Protectionism as their main problem and welcomed Free Trade whereas the artisans feared Free Trade. They were afraid because their work was not unique to Britain but was worldwide and they feared the introduction of fierce competition and the possibility of being faded out. However, mechanisation was unique to Britain at that time and so Free Trade would be very beneficial to the working man. The abolition of the Income Tax in 1816 worsened the already severe taxation burden. The burden fell mainly upon the working class in the form of indirect taxes. The economic causes for Chartism depended upon the nature of the economy and from which region Chartism was being studied.

The economic collapse of the 1830's badly affected both artisans and working classes. The collapse resulting from over-speculation in America led to less capital being available for industry to expand. This had a damaging effect on the manufacturers' capacity to produce and so they cut back in labour. The cutback in labour resulted in high unemployment and the reduction in production ability resulted in high food prices. At the time of the collapse the Whigs were in power and they produced no economic legislation but chose instead to carry out institutional reforms to please their new electorate, the middle class. Therefore, the gulf was given further reason to widen between the middle class (the 'haves') and the working-class (the 'have-nots').

The above economic and to some extent social reasons for Chartism were also thought to be some of the reasons behind the "Condition of England Question" rearing its head during this period. Stephens and Napier described Chartism as a 'bread and butter' issue and contemporaries such as Engels, Cobden, Bright, Disraeli, Peel, Graham, Dickens and Chaloner would agree to some extent. Engels and Dickens believed capitalism was responsible for the economic hardships. Peel and Graham believed economics was the core of the problem, hence their reforms. Chaloner nicknamed the age the 'Hungry Forties'. Cobden and Bright of the Anti-Corn Law League agreed with the Chartists that something was wrong but economic and not political reforms was the answer. If the economy of Britain had been in order then arguably social, political and philosophical problems would not have been present or would have at least been less severe. The ultimate proof that economics was the problem came with the decline in Chartism after Peel's reforms, which were of an economic nature (even O'Connor spotted this).

However, there were also many political reasons for Chartism which mainly affected the artisans in the South and Birmingham. The Reform Act of 1832 positively and negatively stimulated Chartism. Negative stimulation came as the working man was disappointed because he had given massive support to the middle class campaign but remained without the vote. They were determined to push for the vote even though the Act failed to enfranchise them. The Whigs had adopted a finality attitude and the Tories as always remained hostile to constitutional reform. The positive stimulation came from the fact that the working man could see how parliament was catering for the new middle class electorate and so believed the same would happen them if they were enfranchised. Therefore, they adopted the motto "political power brings social happiness".

The working man also feared the "favourite child of the English middle class", the workhouse. Their fear of the workhouse was far stronger than any hatred of the middle class. The Whig reforms following the 1832 Reform Act frustrated and angered the working man. Chartism was triggered off by the failure of the Ten Hour movement to achieve a satisfactory Factory Act, the failure of anti-Poor Law campaign and the failure of Trade Unionism. Trade Unions' bargaining power was virtually nil as the supply of labour was in excess compared to the demand for it because of the huge population rise. The Law courts, the precedents of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the lack of money and communications gave little encouragement to the working man and his Unions. They saw Chartism as the last bid for some form of protection. Therefore, Chartism was rapidly becoming the focal point for all those with any type of grievance. The working man believed all his previous movements had failed because he was a political nobody and so his was a major reason to the rise of Chartism and economic ignorance of the Whigs.

Chartism started out from the disillusionment of all the above failures and was therefore, probably destined to fail. The Anti-Corn Law League started out on the success of 1832 and so was more likely to succeed. However, Chartism was not a new face, it was merely the construction of the radical tradition begun by Cartwright's Take Your Choice (1776) which contained three points of the Charter, Paine's Rights of Man, the Corresponding Societies, Hardy, Wyvill and arguably Wilkes. The aspects of Chartism that were new was the swing of leadership to the North from London and the fact that after 1840 it was arguably, purely a working class movement, a class that had just emerged. The swing of leadership to the North and Peel's reforms gave the kiss of death to Chartism. The Northern Charter Association as opposed to the London Working Men's Association was less respectable, less acceptable to the establishment and less likely to succeed. However, it did understand the needs of the working man far better than the philosophical radical group. Arguably the only reason why the 'moral force' objected to the Newport rising of 1839 was because they did not understand the desires of their rank and file.

Chartism in the beginning with Lovett, Place and Hetherington was believed to be the political answer to the condition of England question and the desire of the lower orders for the vote. However, by the 1840's even O'Connor, the extreme Northerner, realised that economic reform was needed before any political reform can be achieved, hence his Land Plan. This realisation that economics was the root of the problem now posed by the fact that Stephen's interpretation of the movement being a 'bread and butter issue' was believed only by the minority in 1838. However, by 1845 it was the slogan of the entire movement. The importance of food was also proved at a Sheffield meeting when asked 'what do we want' Someone replied 'somat t'eat' [something to eat]. In essence the working man joined Chartism because he was unemployed, hungry and frightened.

Through Chartism can vaguely be seen the beginnings of the modern Labour Party and Socialism, Chartism had the problem of looking forwards but continually backwards for reassurance. Chartism was in the centre of the Condition of England Question and reflected the problems of the age into which it developed.

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Last modified 23 April, 2017

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