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This essay was written by Mark Harbor. My thanks to him for allowing publication on this web site.

"The roots of Chartism lay in economic hardship, not in the lack of political rights." Do you agree?

Be it therefore enacted,

That from and after the passing of this Act every male inhabitant of these realms be entitled to vote for the election of a Member of Parliament…

The Peoples' Charter, published in The Chartist Circular, 5 October 1839. [1]

The above extract from the first charter, presented to parliament on 14 June 1839 by Thomas Attwood, clearly shows that the overt goal of the Chartist 'movement' was to secure political rights for all men in the land. The Charter had been prepared originally as a 'Bill for presentation to the Commons' by six radical MPs and six members of the London Working Men's Association (LWMA), including William Lovett, Henry Hetherington and Francis Place.

The Radicals had, since the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, been losing popular support due to the disappointment among the working classes that they had not got the right to vote, and the consequential distrust of the Radicals' political methods.[2] The Radicals had attempted to defend their position by asserting that the disappointment of the Act was not their fault, but the fault of the Whigs who, they suggested, had not been democratic enough.  They had also attempted to reform the House of Lords; but they eventually concluded that the only reform in which the masses were interested was that of extended franchise; that is 'Universal Suffrage'.

At a banquet in honour of their MP in February 1837, the Radical voters of Finsbury concluded that the time was ripe to arouse public opinion by combining, in a single Act, their demands for extension of the franchise, the [secret] ballot, the reduction of the life of parliament and the abolition of stamp duty on newspapers.[3] They saw that co-operating with the LWMA would give them an opportunity to regain their support with the masses. The Bill was drafted between May and June of 1837 but, unfortunately, in the general election of July 1837 many Radical MP's lost their seats.

During a similar period Feargus O'Connor was having political problems of his own. In 1832 he had been elected as an MP for County Cork, but had been expelled from parliament in 1835 because he did not meet the property qualification to be a Member.  He settled in the north of England, where he bought a newspaper business, The Northern Star, from William Hill of Barnsley. The paper campaigned fiercely against the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, for the Ten-Hour Movement, and, although a 'legal' newspaper, against Stamp Duty. Although he had no part in drafting the Charter, O'Connor recognised its political value as a common platform for Radical demands for reform.[4]

It can be seen that the Chartist 'movement' had its roots in political radicalism; its pedigree can be traced to the early 19th century, and beyond. The early leaders of the movement were political veterans who invoked the names of Hunt, Paine and Cobbett, [5] but the question must be asked; why were the Radicals so intent on political reform?

William Cobbett (1763-1835) felt that the reform of parliament was required for a number of diverse reasons; the corruption of the voting system, the national debt, paper money and an expanding civil list, to name but a few. He summarised the likely results of a revised, and reduced, civil list in a letter to Sir Francis Burdett: [6]

If a reduction such as I have here spoken of were made, a million pounds a year would thereby be left in the pockets of the people, instead of that sum being annually taken from them by the tax-gatherers. This would be the true way of enabling the farmers and the tradesmen to pay wages sufficient to keep labourers out of the poor house.

Thomas Attwood (1783-1856) founded the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) in 1830 to represent the interests of the 'industrious' classes; that is, businessmen, masters and skilled workers. He had opposed the return to the gold standard in 1821, believing that the economic problems in the country were caused by 'hard money', and that, unlike Cobbett, the way to solve these problems was an abundant supply of paper money.[7]

The philanthropic motives described above were not the only ones; a minority of the delegates to the General Convention, a large proportion of whom were 'middle-class', would appear to have been there for their own self-interest.  They would hold meetings separately from the regular meetings of the convention.  The results of these sessions influenced the decisions of the Convention as a whole.[8] O'Connor's motives also need to be examined. This would seem to be a man who needed to be at the forefront of peoples' consciousness; he claimed royal descent from the ancient kings of Ireland, [9] an indication of his need for power.

The actions and motivations of the Chartist movement's leaders and their antecedents do not explain the massive support the Charter received. Leaders, such as O'Connor (the self-confessed demagogue) could use the frustrations of the poorer classes to rouse them. The question is though, who were the poorer classes, and what were their motivations in supporting the Charter?

It is difficult to describe the mass support for the Charter as 'The Working Class'; as a delegate to the General Convention admitted: [10]

It was only among the worst-paid workers that Chartism found unanimous support. Those who earned thirty shillings a week, cared nothing for those who earned fifteen shillings and the latter cared as little for those who earned five or six shillings.

It can be seen that 'the Working Class' was as stratified as society in general; and consisted of a number of sub-classes; all with their own grievances.

Skilled workers, such as the artisans, senior craftsmen and hand loom weavers, found their economic foundations being eroded by the factories. It was these people, the 'upper-working class' (or lower middle-class?), who had supported the Radicals in the fight for parliamentary reform in the 1820's and early 1830's.Their disappointment was that they had been excluded from the 'extended' franchise of the 1832 Act.  These people were constitutional reformers, followers of 'Owenite Socialism'; in many ways they looked to a return to the 'old days' when their star was in the ascendant; to a certain extent, they did not see industrialisation as permanent. [11]

The 'new age' workers, the factory hands, did not look back; their main focus was to improve conditions in the factories.  Many were involved in the Ten-Hour Movement, and were disappointed that the 1833 Factory Act had not improved working conditions for adults. Additionally, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did not assist the urban workers during the periodic economic crises experienced by the country.

The likes of O'Connor, through The Northern Star, used the economic crises of 1829-35, 1838-42, 1843-4 and 1846-48 [12] as the binding force for action toward parliamentary reform; the Charter was the one thing that could unite all the disparate causes into one, single, movement.

Lenin paraphrased Engels when he described Chartism as the 'first broad and politically organised proletarian-revolutionary movement of the masses'. [13]  Halévy states however that 'Chartism was not a creed.  It was the blind revolt of hunger'. [14] In essence, both men were correct; the Charter was a political tool intended to revolutionise the way in which parliament was chosen and organised.  It was not however the final goal, which was to cure economic ills.

So, the roots of Chartism lay in the Radical tradition, which wanted parliamentary reform in order to correct the socio-economic ills in the land. That is, the Charter itself was not the ultimate goal of Chartism; it was the means to achieving the end of socio-economic fairness in Great Britain.

The popular support the Charter gained in 1839, 1842 and 1848 was due to the politicking of people like O'Connor.

Chartism means poverty and poverty is a consequence of class legislation…before poverty ceases class legislation must be destroyed.

 Northern Star, 1846 [15]

This led to the recognition that, without political power, the working classes had little chance of being able to improve their economic position. As Cobbett said, 'I defy you to agitate any fellow with a full stomach.'[16]

Bibliography

Briggs, A., Chartism (Sutton Publishing, 1998).
Class Handouts supplied by Patsy Calder.
Derry, J. (ed), Cobbett's England  (Parkgate Books, 1997).
Halévy, E., The Triumph of Reform 1839-1841 (Ernest Benn Ltd., 1950).
Hobsbawm, E.J., Industry and Empire (Penguin Books, 1990).
Murphy, D. (ed), Britain 1815-1918 (Collins Educational, 1999).
Taylor, D., Mastering Economic and Social History (MacMillan, 1988).
The Peel Web: http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/terrace/adw03/peel

References

[1] The Peel Web: http://dspace.pipex.com/mbloy/peel/chart4.htm
[2] Halévy, E., The Triumph of Reform 1830-1841,  p.289.
[3] Ibid., p. 292.
[4] Briggs, A., Chartism, p.26.
[5]Ibid., p.25.
[6] Derry, J. (ed), Cobbett's England, p.136.
[7] The Peel Web: http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/mbloy/peel/attwood.htm
[8] Halévy, The Truimph of Reform,  p.312.
[9] The Peel Web: oconnor.htm
[10] Halévy, The Truimph of Reform p.322.
[11]Hobsbawm, E.J., Industry and Empire,  p.123.
[12] Ibid., p.94.
[13] Briggs, Chartism p.7.
[14]Halévy,The Truimph of Reform p.323.
[15] The Peel Web: http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/mbloy/peel/chart2.htm
[16]Ibid, /peel/cobbett.htm

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