Chartism and the fear of armed revolution

The Chartist movement from 1838 to 1850 was arguably the largest organised movement in the first half of the nineteenth century campaigning for the attainment of universal male suffrage and the full reform of Parliament (which was not achieved in the Reform Act of 1832) and in resisting government repression. It was named after the People’s Charter drawn up by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association in 1838. The charter had its forerunner in the People’s Charter... giving a Condensed View of the Great Principles of Representative Government, and the Chief Objects of Reform drawn up by the Metropolitan Political Union in 1832. The model for both documents was Magna Charta, and the 1838 charter contained the following six central aims:

  • 1. Annual Parliaments.
  • 2. Universal Suffrage.
  • 3. Equal Voting Districts.
  • 4. No Property Qualifications.
  • 5. Voting by Ballot.
  • 6. Payment of Members. (LWMA 1848: 7)

The most comprehensive history of Chartism has been written by Malcolm Chase, who makes the following comment about the fear of the Chartist movement in the eyes of polite society and the political establishment:

Clearly something remarkable was taking place as 1838 drew to a close. Seldom had the constitutional right to bear arms been so loudly asserted or the language of physical force so widely used. It was one of the hardest winters in recent memory and the economy was in depression. Yet a highly politicised movement had emerged, distinguished first and foremost by its self-possession. (2007: 41)

It is no exaggeration to say that the mood in the country as a whole was one of fearful apprehension. Armed insurrection seemed on the brink of turning into stark reality. Chartist organisations had sprung up all over the country, not just in the industrial areas, but even in the quiet rural backwaters of what was considered to be the most prosperous parts of the country. The movement was nothing if not well organised. At its head was a charismatic Irishman named Feargus O’Connor, who also financed a radical newspaper, the Northern Star, based in Leeds, which quickly became the mouthpiece for Chartism.

The year 1839 saw the establishment of a National Convention, whose purpose it was to put together a petition to be presented to Parliament based on the People’s Charter. Chartists themselves fully expected that Parliament would accept the petition, but, as the year wore on, the authorities began to clamp down on allowing Chartists to hold large meetings. In April Henry Vincent, an important member of the convention, dared local magistrates at Newport to arrest him while making a speech at a meeting that had been declared illegal. The magistrates did not oblige, but the next time he was in Newport, a pitched battle took place between Vincent’s supporters and special constables. He was arrested on 7 May in London, after which the organisers decided that the convention could be more safely held in Birmingham. Between May and 12 July, when the National Petition was debated in the House of Commons, more violence broke out in Llanidloes and Longton, and more convention members were arrested and imprisoned. The petition itself had almost 2 million signatures, which in a population of roughly 14 million represented one seventh of the total population of Great Britain, which in itself was no mean feat. Parliament debated a proposal by Thomas Attwood “that a committee of the whole House take into consideration the National Petition” (M. Chase 2007: 84), but after a lukewarm debate in a halfempty House the proposal was turned down. The vote was 235 votes to 46.

The response to Parliament’s rejection of the petition was not only to dampen the confidence of Chartists but also to incite the more militant members to argue in favour of strikes, a nationwide armed insurrection, or both. Riots occurred in Birmingham, Bury and other places, and in November an armed march was organised into Newport. The reaction of the authorities was severe and punitive, with death penalties (later converted into transportation to Australia), transportation and prison sentences. Chase points out that “local circumstances explain each of the riotous outbreaks, but the overall effect was to increase apprehension that Chartists were intent on fomenting major upheaval” (2007: 95).

The movement continued its activities throughout the 1840s, culminating in a second Petition in 1848, which was said to have 5 million signatures. In reality, however, the total number of signatures was later calculated at a little more than 1.9 million after dual signatures, signatures that were obviously forged, children’s signatures, women’s signatures and those of people who had died in the meantime were struck out. The petition was accompanied by

a mass meeting of Chartists on Kennington Common on 8 April, the intention being that it should be escorted to the House of Commons by those attending. Instead of the expected 400,000 on the Common, it is estimated that there were only roughly 150,000 present, and O’Connor, who had since won a seat in the House of Commons, agreed with the Metropolitan Police Force that the petition would be conveyed to Parliament in a number of hansom cabs. The fate of the petition was then in the hands of O’Connor himself. However, when the motion to present the petition to Parliament was due, O’Connor, who had lost his patience with a fellow MP and challenged him to a duel and then was constrained to apologise before the House, withdrew the motion in a fit of pique! So ended the People’s Charter. Chartism itself lingered on for a few more years and petered out in 1852.

Apart from the clause demanding annual parliaments, however, all the clauses of the charter have now been fulfilled. The Ballot Act was passed in 1872; equal voting districts were agreed on in 1884, and the Representation of the People Act in the same year abolished property rights for voting; payment of MPs was introduced in 1911; and full universal suffrage (of men and women) was introduced in Britain in 1918. In this sense the charter was successful. So why was it first turned down, and what was it about Chartism that frightened the authorities so much? Chartism was a political movement, but it was never a political party, although a few Chartists were able to gain seats in the House of Commons. This was, perhaps, its weakness, one that the trade union movement managed to avoid although it, too, was never a political party. Chartism displayed an alarming degree of organisation and a bold and decisive command of written English; it was characterised by a high level and surprising degree of verbal articulation, fluency and eloquence in the field of political agitation. At the time, it was also thought to be characterised by a willingness to use force to achieve its ends, although Chase’s book shows the degree to which this was caused more by fear among the middle and upper classes of society than by official policy decisions. I will argue in the final section, however, that the fear of the Chartist movement was driven by the politicised, class-dominated theory of language developed in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

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