Of all of Britain’s abortive political ventures, Chartism ranks among the most memorable. In the first cogent and unified labor movement of British history, Chartists managed to organize British workers across the nation from its inception in 1836 until its gradual collapse, which completed around 1848. Abandoning the notion that Parliament would in time correct all social ills, they pushed more directly for social change in a series of Charters which they presented to Parliament. Although all the Charters were rebuffed by Parliament and the movement eventually disintegrated, it is of no minor historical significance: such a direct vocalization of the vox populi was unheard of in Victorian Britain. Moreover, though Chartism itself fell apart, the reforms it demanded were nonetheless gradually conceded by Parliament during the next hundred years; additionally, because it created the first real threat of class war between proletariat and bourgeoisie, the Chartist movement foreshadowed later social change.
In 1836, William Lovett, a political radical, founded the London Working Man’s Association. Disgusted by the squalor and decrepitude which Britain’s poor laborers experienced and distrustful of Parliament’s grudgingly concessionist stance, it was not until the next year that Lovett and Francis Place (another, more moderate, activist) would set down their vague restlessness on paper. When they did, the result was a forceful People’s Charter which explicitly stated the pent-up grievances of Britain’s new industrial working class:
The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or insolently and tyrannously trampled upon. It was the fond expectation of the people that a remedy for the greater part, if not for the whole, of their grievances, would be found in the Reform Act of 1832. They were taught to regard that Act as a wise means to a worthy end; as the machinery of an improved legislation, when the will of the masses would be at length potential. They have been bitterly and basely deceived. The fruit which looked so fair to the eye has turned to dust and ashes when gathered. The Reform Act has effected a transfer of power from one domineering faction to another, and left the people as helpless as before. (Petition 1-2).
With these complaints firmly implanted in their collective consciousness, the Chartists made demands which by today’s standards seem reasonable but were, at the time, extremely liberal. Loosely summarized, they requested universal suffrage (implicitly male, although early in the movement there were female leaders), a vote by ballot, annual sessions of Parliament, the removal of property qualifications for would-be Parliament members, fair electoral districts, and pecuniary recompense for Parliament members. When this Charter was presented to Parliament, it was rejected with a vote of 235 to 46. Only a little set aback, in 1840 Fe[a]rgus O’Connor, a Chartist leader, founded the National Charter Association and set to the task of drafting another petition to Parliament; in 1842, this second Charter, ostensibly signed by over three million workers, was again refused. Meanwhile the people who had allied themselves with the Chartist cause were not passive; labor strikes and riots came to a head in May 1842 following the petition’s dismissal, and governmental intervention was swift and brutal: the Chartists’ movement was for a time suppressed.
However, following six years of relative quiet as the Chartists regrouped, Chartism began to see more popular support than ever before in 1848. The 1848 Chartist petition was probably much the same as the previous two (no copy remains) but those who presented it claimed that it carried nearly six million laborers’ signatures. The veiled-threat nature of Chartism had gradually evolved from the 1838 peaceful petition for increased rights to this outright statement of possession. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that Parliament once again rejected the Chartists even in face of war with six million workers. One explanation for this final refusal and the lack of immediate acceptance is illegitimacy of their claim; historian Patrick Rooke explains this point:
Parliament, however, became even more worried when it heard that the petition was a fraudulent one:
‘The Hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. F. O’Connor) stated on presenting the petition, that 5,706,000 names were attached to it; but upon the most careful examination...the number of signatures has been ascertained to be 1,975,496....[O]n numerous consecutive sheets the signatures are one and the same handwriting. Your Committee also observed the names of distinguished individuals attached to the petition...among which occurs the name of Her Majesty, as Victoria Rex, April 1st, F.M. Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, etc.
‘Your Committee [the Select Committee on Public Petitions] have also observed, in derogation of the value of such petition, the insertion of numbers of names which are obviously fictitious, such as "No Cheese", "Pug Nose", "Flat Nose". There are others included, which your Committee do not hazard offending the House and the dignity and the decency of their own proceedings by reporting.’ (Rooke 31)
However, irrespective of Parliament’s motivations, after the 1848 proposal was voted down, a propaganda war was waged by the government to make the 1848 Chartist attempt at reform known as a "fiasco". Some contemporary historians have continued to dub this last rejection, in which demonstrators were not permitted to march with O’Connor as he presented the doomed petition, the "fiasco of 1848".
Historian Jackson J. Spielvogel interprets the Chartist movement as most significant as an expression of newborn British class consciousness, and this view is not without merit. Writing that "After 1843, Chartism as a movement had largely played itself out" (Spielvogel 605), he places most of the importance of the group in the first two petitions. According to him, these two petitions were rejected by Parliament because they "were not at all ready for political democracy" (605). His opinion is simply that Britain’s upper crust was not ready for the changes which its lower class perceived as necessary. However, he does assign a positive conclusion to the temporarily ineffectual Chartists:
[Chartism’s] true significance stemmed from its ability to arouse...millions of working-class men and women, to give them a sense of working-class consciousness...This political education of working people was important to the ultimate acceptance of all the points of the People’s Charter in the future. (605)
Other historians of moderate renown have tackled the issue of Chartism with no little ardor, but their conclusions differ in some respects from Spielvogel’s. Notably, Leon Trotsky analyzes the movement as a perfect crystallization of everything Marxism predicted about history, but notes that the movement was too nascent to make any overt progress towards socialism: "[T]he Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera" (Trotsky 6). In Chartism in Britain, Trotsky finds a perfect microcosmic explication of the proletariat’s struggle, and he therefore highlights the socioeconomic implications of this new class consciousness. Trotsky’s focus is on the working class instead of the nation as a whole, and in that respect differs from Spielvogel’s commentary. Additionally, unlike Spielvogel, he mentions force as an important component of the social development that occurred during the time of the Chartists; in pursuing change, they "tossed the sentimental preachers of 'moral force' aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution" (6). Trotsky would agree with Spielvogel that the Chartist movement’s primary problem was coming too early; he calls it "an historical anticipation" and compares it to the Russian Revolution of 1905 which failed but was followed by the successful 1917 revolutions. Though the context of Trotsky’s writing cannot be ignored—he was a Soviet revolutionary writing in 1925 about the future of Britain, which was just then completing the reforms the Chartists had started to propose—his analysis of the Chartist movement and its social implications provides a more realistic perspective than Spielvogel’s, and his assertion of the significance of concerted violent rebelliousness necessitates careful consideration.
By necessity the best historians are the ones who have the most information with which to work. For that reason, Dr. Edward Boyle, who has analyzed the changing historical interpretation of Chartism, puts his focus in quite interesting places. Boyle describes the Chartist movement as many idealistic people coming together under a common cause. He shows that their organization included the necessary synthesis of three customarily radical ideas: first, they had mass meetings whose purpose was "to inform, to demonstrate, and to intimidate" (2); second, they adopted the bourgeoisie concept of a petition, which had earlier been used to effect the abolition of slavery; and third, they held "anti-parliaments", conventions of their own leaders. He additionally places great importance in a newspaper not mentioned by either Spielvogel or Trotsky; he credits the Northern Star, the Chartist newspaper, as crucial in spreading word of all the workers’ lives from and to every corner of Britain. Especially jarring is Boyle’s explanation of the downfall of Chartism; he states that "the Chartist message was shown by events to be not only ineffective but untrue" (3), a statement with which Spielvogel might reservedly agree but which Trotsky would categorically deny. As evidence, he offers the grudging reforms of the 1840s, such as the Ten Hours Act of 1847, the Mines Act of 1842, and the disbanding of the Poor Law Commission, which was much hated throughout England for its singleminded focus on forcing laborers to work and its provision of relief solely within the workhouse. He also proposes that one of the primary causes was "the irresponsible tactic of violent language" (Boyle 1), contrary to Trotsky’s view that violence was the lifeblood of Chartism. However, even more jarring is Boyle’s suggestion that Chartism might not, in one sense, have fallen at all; in contradiction with what Spielvogel said, he claims that Chartism actually grew between 1842 and 1848 in London. To reconcile this growth with the gradual loss of power, he concludes that the government must have strengthened even more than the Chartists did in this period (the last thing Trotsky would want to hear). Overall, Boyle’s analysis of the Chartist period in Britain is most discordant because it presents a myriad of opinions; though the same historical result occurred, he believes that the causes were more complex than Trotsky or Spielvogel would admit.
Ultimately the best way to understand an historical event is to look at it from as many different perspectives as possible. Applying this technique to the Chartist reform movement in Britain, we are presented with a few distinct opportunities: we can view this movement as a socioeconomic restructuring that came too early, a stymied attempt at pure socialism which would later reassert itself, or as an ideological commune whose basic premise was too skewed to succeed. No matter what interpretation we choose, the impact of Chartism on Britain is still present today in the socialist economic structure and in the set of comparatively recent political and civil liberties all the people enjoy.
Modern History Sourcebook: Chartism: The People’s Petition, 1838. [web page] August 1997; http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1838chartism.html. [Accessed 16 December 2002].
Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization, Comprehensive Volume, 4th ed. Wadsworth, 2000.
Burton, Elizabeth. The Pageant of Early Victorian England: 1837-1861. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972.
Chartism and the Chartist Movement. [web page] 2001; http://politics99.co.uk/history1/chartists.htm. [Accessed 16 December 2002].
Roberts, Stephen. BBC – History – The Chartist Movement. [web page] May 2002; http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/chartist_05.shtml. [Accessed 16 December 2002].
Rooke, Patrick. The Age of Dickens. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
Royle, Edward. "Chartism". Recent Findings of Research in Economic & Social History Spring 1986: 1-4. Available online at http://www.ehs.org.uk/pdfs/Royle%202a.pdf. [Accessed 16 December 2002].
Trotsky, Leon. "Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism". 1925; available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/britain/ch06.htm. [Accessed 16 December 2002].