Page:The Chartist Movement.djvu/51

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THE CHARTER AND ITS ORIGIN

canvassing, and corrupt practices, imprisonment is the only penalty; for neglect, fines.[1]

As an arrangement for securing the purity of elections and the adequate representation of public opinion in the House of Commons, the "People's Charter" is as nearly perfect as could be desired, and if a sound democratic government could be achieved by the perfection of political machinery, the Chartist programme would accomplish this desirable end. The Chartists, like the men of 1789 in France, placed far too great a faith in the beneficent effects of logically devised democratic machinery. This is the inevitable symptom of political inexperience. We shall nevertheless see that there were Chartists, and those the best minds in the movement, who realised that there were other forces working against democracy which could not be removed by mechanical improvements, but must be combated by a patient education of the mind and a building up of the material welfare of the common people—the forces of ignorance, vice, feudal and aristocratic tradition.

The political Chartist programme is now largely incorporated into the British Constitution, though we have wisely rejected that multiplication of elections which would either exhaust public interest or put an end to the stability and continuity of administration and policy. In itself the Chartist Movement on its political side represents a phase of an agitation for Parliamentary Reform which dates in a manner from the reign of Elizabeth.[2] The agitation began therefore when Parliament itself began to play a decisive part in public affairs, and increased in vehemence and scope according as the importance of Parliament waxed.

The abuses of the representative system were already recognised and turned to advantage by politicians, royal and popular, during the latter half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century; but beyond a single timid attempt at reform by James I. nothing was attempted until the great politico-religious struggle between 1640 and 1660. It is here that we must look for the origins of modern radical and democratic ideas. The fundamentals of the representative system came up for discussion, and in the Instrument of Government, the written constitution which established the Protectorate in 1653, a drastic scheme of reform, including the normalisation of the franchise and a sweeping redistribution

  1. For full text see Lovett, Life and Struggles, pp. 449 et seq. This is the revised edition of 1842, but is substantially the same as that of 1838.
  2. Porritt, Unreformed House of Commons, Cambridge, 1903, i. 1.