Plan: origin People's Charter of 1838 The first wave 1842: Chartism's biggest petition and 'the General Strike' The mid-Forties Chartism and Christianity the 1848 petition Legacy References Chartism

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Chartism movement in Britain


1 Origin
2 People's Charter of 1838
3 The first wave
4 1842: Chartism's biggest petition and 'the General Strike'
5 The mid-Forties
6 Chartism and Christianity
7 The 1848 petition
8 Legacy
9 References
Chartism was a working class movement for political reform in Britain between 1838 and 1848. It takes its name from the People's Charter of 1838. Chartism was the first mass working class labour movement in the world. "Chartism" is the umbrella name for numerous poorly-coordinated local groups, often named "Working Men's Association," articulating grievances in many cities from 1837. Its peak activity came in 1839, 1842 and 1848. It began among skilled artisans in small shops, such as shoemakers, printers, and tailors. The movement was more aggressive in areas with many distressed handloom workers, such as in Lancashire and the Midlands. It began as a petition movement which tried to mobilize "moral force", but soon attracted men who advocated strikes and violence, such as Feargus O'Connor. One faction issued the "People's Charter" in 1838 and it was widely adopted by the movement. The People's Charter called for six basic reforms to make the political system more democratic:

  1. universal male suffrage;

  2. a secret ballot;

  3. no property qualification for members of Parliament;

  4. pay members of Parliament (so poor men could serve);

  5. constituencies of equal size;

  6. annual elections for Parliament.

Eventually, the first five goals were achieved, but that happened long after Chartism was a spent force.
Chartism flourished in hard times, and faded during prosperity. Political elites saw the movement as dangerous and refused to negotiate with it or deal with its demands. The government permanently crushed the movement in 1848. The movement produced no immediate reforms, but it did attract the attention of the working class, which was not allowed to vote. Historians see Chartism as both a continuation of the 18th century fight against corruption and as a new stage in demands for democracy in an industrial society
Some 120 local newspapers were important to the movement, for their news, editorials, announcements, poetry and (especially in 1848) reports on international developments. They reached upwards of a million readers (and listeners). The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s, edited by Henry Hetherington dealt with questions of class solidarity, universal suffrage, property, and temperance, and opposed the Reform Act of 1832, The paper explored the rhetoric of violence versus non-violence, or what the its writers referred to as moral versus physical force.[5] The Northern Star was influential between 1837 and 1852 as a mouthpiece for Feargus O'Connor. Its peak circulation was 50,000 copies in 1839; like other Chartist papers it was often read aloud in workers' circles.[6] The papers often discussed economic issues, such as the trade union movement, grievance of labor forces, employment opportunities, reduction of credit, results of outflow of gold, movements of interest rates and the long-term outlook for artisans. The editors denounced imperialism and condemned the First Opium War (1839-42), arguing the free traders' claims of the civilizing and pacifying influences of free trade was demonstrably bogus.
People's Charter of 1838
In 1837, six Members of Parliament and six working men, including William Lovett, (from the London Working Men's Association, set up in 1836) formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter in 1838. This stipulated the six main aims of the movement as:[8]
A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
The secret ballot. - To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
No property qualification for members of Parliament - thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
Payment of members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
When these demands were first published in May, 1838, they received a lukewarm response from Northern Star's Feargus O'Connor and other Radicals, being seen as too moderate (Thompson, 1984, p. 58). But it soon became clear that the charter had struck a chord among common people. A large meeting was held on Kersal Moor, Kersal near Salford,Lancashire on 24 September 1838 which attracted a large crowd to listen to speakers from all over the country. Speaking in favour of universal suffrage Joseph Rayner Stephens was quoted as saying that Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question"
John Bates, an activist, recalled:
There were [radical] associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on... The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the People's Charter was drawn up... clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres..."
The movement organised a convention of 50 to facilitate the presentation of the petition. This met in London from February, 1839 until May, when it moved to Birmingham. Though they took pains to keep within the law, the more radical activists were able to see it as the embryo of an alternative parliament. The convention called for a number of "ulterior measures" which ranged from calling on their supporters to withdraw their money from saving banks to a call for a "Sacred Month" (in effect, a general strike). Meetings were held around the country and in June, 1839 a large petition was presented to the House of Commons. Parliament, by a large majority, voted not even to hear the petitioners. When the petition was refused, many advocated the widespread use of force as the only means of attaining their aims.

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