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chartism

chartism (1837–54) was the first attempt to build an independent political party representing the interests of the labouring and unprivileged sections of the nation. For many of its followers chartism was basically ‘a knife and fork question’. Yet its programme was a series of political demands. The link between economic ills and political representation was constantly elaborated in chartist pamphlets and oratory.

The chartists were so named because they formulated their demands in a six-point charter: universal (manhood) suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by (secret) ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, payment of MPs, and equal electoral districts. The object was to make the charter the law of the land by legal, constitutional means if possible, or by force if necessary—or by a mixture of both: ‘peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.’ Great efforts were made to collect support for a petition to the House of Commons on behalf of the charter, but on each occasion the House rejected its demands. Alternative methods were therefore advocated. There were plans for making the central body of chartist delegates, the national convention, a people's parliament which would bypass Westminster; a general strike (‘national holiday’) was attempted in August 1839; and local riots, and perhaps an abortive insurrection (the Newport rising) in November 1839, showed that ‘physical force’ might not be ruled out.

In its origins chartism was an umbrella movement which drew together many strands of radical grievance. In London and the provinces Working Men's Associations were formed in 1837, building on the remains of earlier radical reform organizations. In Birmingham, the movement at first was closely allied with middle-class radicals and currency reformers. In Leeds, Owenite socialists combined with middle-class radicals and physical-force militants to launch the Leeds Working Men's Association. In other towns of the West Riding and the industrial North local movements and grievances (including the 1834 New Poor Law) provided a basis for chartism, which was thus not so much a national movement as a series of local and regional movements, loosely federated. This posed a problem of concerted action which was never solved. Attempts to build a national organization repeatedly fell apart; and the most effective link between chartists was the widely read chartist newspaper the Northern Star.

The geography of chartism reflected the national economic and social structure. Wherever there was a substantial number of skilled artisans, especially shoemakers, printers, tailors, and cabinet-makers, a chartist organization on the lines of the Working Men's Associations was to be expected, with an emphasis on self-help, independence, and propaganda for universal suffrage. Such was the movement in London or Birmingham. But in areas where there were substantial numbers of distressed hand-loom weavers or framework-knitters (as in Lancashire, the West Riding, and the midlands) chartism assumed a fiercer visage and adopted a more strident tone, expressed in mass demonstrations and torchlight meetings on the moors.

Just as the local variations of chartism were related to the structure of the economy, so the chronology of the movement reflected the cycle of booms and slumps between 1836 and 1851. The first climax of chartism came in the winter of 1839 during a severe trade depression. In 1842 a second peak of chartist activity was reached, arising out of mass unemployment in the northern towns. The last great flare-up of chartism came in 1848, following a winter of economic recession and inspired by revolutions on the continent. In periods of relative prosperity (1843–7 and after 1848) chartism lost its mass support. It then became a movement promoting education, temperance, municipal reforms, and settlement on the land—while never losing faith that universal suffrage would some day, somehow, be won. After 1848, as a curious epilogue, a group of chartists tried to steer the movement towards socialism and the international working-class movement of Marx and Engels.

Though the chartists failed at the time to achieve their six points, they were, with the exception of annual parliaments, realized later.

John F. C. Harrison

Bibliography

Ward, J. T. , Chartism (1973).

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Chartism

Chartism, workingmen's political reform movement in Great Britain, 1838–48. It derived its name from the People's Charter, a document published in May, 1838, that called for voting by ballot, universal male suffrage, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, no property qualifications for members of Parliament, and payment of members. The charter was drafted by the London Working Men's Association, an organization founded (1836) by William Lovett and others, but the movement gathered momentum largely because of the fervor and rhetorical talents of Feargus O'Connor. He traveled widely, especially in the north, where recurrent economic depressions and the constraints of the new poor law (1834) had bred especially deep discontent, and recruited support for the charter. In Aug., 1838, the charter was adopted at a national convention of workingmen's organizations in Birmingham. The following February another convention, calling itself the People's Parliament, met in London. A Chartist petition was presented to Parliament (and summarily rejected), but the convention rapidly lost support as the multiplicity of aims among its members and rivalries among its leaders became apparent. Riots in July and a confrontation between Chartist miners and the military at Newport, Wales, in November led to the arrest of most of the Chartist leaders by the end of 1839. In 1840, O'Connor founded the National Charter Association (NCA) in an attempt to centralize the organization of the movement, but most of the other leaders refused to support his efforts. It was the NCA that drafted and presented to Parliament the second Chartist petition in 1842. It too was overwhelmingly rejected. By this time the vitality of Chartism was being undermined by a revival of trade unionism, the growth of the Anti-Corn Law League, and a trend toward improvement in working-class economic conditions. O'Connor began to devote himself to a scheme for settling laborers on the land as small holders. The last burst of Chartism was sparked by an economic crisis in 1847–48. In Apr., 1848, a new convention was summoned to London to draft a petition, and a mass demonstration and procession planned to present the petition to Parliament. The authorities took extensive precautions against trouble, but the demonstration was rained out and the procession, which had been forbidden, did not take place. This fiasco marked the end of Chartism in London, although the movement survived for a while in some other parts of the country.

See A. Briggs, ed., Chartist Studies (1959); M. Hovell, The Chartist Movement (3d ed. 1967); J. T. Ward, Chartism (1973); D. Goodway, London Chartism, 1838–1848 (1982); C. Godfrey, Chartist Lives (1987).

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Chartism

Chartism (1838–48) British working-class movement for political reform. Combining the discontent of industrial workers with the demands of radical artisans, the movement adhered to the People's Charter (1838), which demanded electoral reform including universal male suffrage. As well as local riots and strikes, the Chartists organized mass petitions (1839, 1842, 1848). The movement faded away after a major demonstration in 1848.

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Chartism

Chartism a UK parliamentary reform movement of 1837–48, the principles of which were set out in a manifesto called The People's Charter (the name is first used in an address of 1838 by the Chartist William Lovett, 1800–77). This document called for universal suffrage for men, equal electoral districts, voting by secret ballot, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and annual general elections.

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Chartism

Chart·ism / ˈchärtˌizəm/ • n. a UK parliamentary reform movement of 1837–48, the principles of which were set out in a manifesto called The People's Charter . DERIVATIVES: Chart·ist n. & adj.

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