The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Chartist Movement

Category: 19th century

The Chartist Movement was a powerful protest organization that urged the immediate adoption of the “People’s Charter”, which would have transformed Britain into a political democracy. It was also expected to improve living standards.

The “People’s Charter”, drafted in 1838 by Will­iam Lovett, was at the heart of a radical campaign for Parliamentary Reform of the inequities remaining af­ter the Reform Act of 1832.

The Chartists’ six main demands were:

—   universal male suffrage (votes for all men);

—   equal electoral districts;

—   abolition of the requirement that vembers of Parliament be property owners;

—   payment for the Members of Parliament;

—   annual general elections; and

—   the secret ballot.

Millions of workers signed Charter petitions in 1839, 1842 and 1848, and some Chartist demonstrations turned into riots. In 1839, the Chartists obtained one and a quarter million signatures and presented the Charter to the House of Commons, where it was re­jected by a vote of 235 to 46. Many of the leaders of the movement, having threatened to call a general strike, were arrested. When demonstrators marched on the prison at Newport, Monmouthshire, demanding the release of their leaders, troops opened fire, killing 24 and wounding 40 more. A second petition with 3 million signatures was rejected in 1842; the rejection of the third petition in 1848 brought an end to the movement.

More important than the movement itself was the unrest it symbolized. The Chartists’ demands, at the time, seemed radical; those outside the movement saw the unrest and thought of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Thomas Carlyle’s pamphlet “Char­tism” (1839) argued the need for Reform by fanning these fears, though he became increasingly hostile to democratic ideas in his later works.

Historians theorize broadly about why this revo­lutionary movement died out just as the revolutions of 1848 were breaking out all over Europe. The English might have a confidence in their government and a sense of optimism about their future possibilities which suggested to them that patience was better than vio­lence; and in fact most of their demands were eventu­ally met — specifically in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. The threat of unrest surely influenced such oth­erwise unrelated reforms as the Factory act and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The radicalism that surfaced in the agitation for the Charter and a desire for a work­ing-class voice in foreign affairs eventually channelled itself into related areas like the Socialist movement.

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