1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chartism

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CHARTISM, the name given to a movement for political reform in England, from the so-called “People’s Charter” or “National Charter,” the document in which in 1838 the scheme of reforms was embodied. The movement itself may be traced to the latter years of the 18th century. Checked for a while by the reaction due to the excesses of the French Revolution, it received a fresh impetus from the awful misery that followed the Napoleonic wars and the economic changes due to the introduction of machinery. The Six Acts of 1819 were directed, not only against agrarian and industrial rioting, but against the political movement of which Sir Francis Burdett was the spokesman in the House of Commons, which demanded manhood suffrage, the ballot, annual parliaments, the abolition of the property qualification for members of parliament and their payment. The movement was checked for a while by the Reform Bill of 1832; but it was soon discovered that, though the middle classes had been enfranchised, the economic and political grievances of the labouring population remained unredressed. Two separate movements now developed: one socialistic, associated with the name of Robert Owen; the other radical, aiming at the enfranchisement of the “masses” as the first step to the amelioration of their condition. The latter was represented in the Working Men’s Association, by which in 1838 the “People’s Charter” was drawn up. It embodied exactly the same programme as that of the radical reformers mentioned above, with the addition of a demand for equal electoral districts.

In support of this programme a vigorous agitation began, the principal leader of which was Feargus O’Connor, whose irresponsible and erratic oratory produced a vast effect. Monster meetings were held, at which seditious language was occasionally used, and slight collisions with the military took place. Petitions of enormous size, signed in great part with fictitious names, were presented to parliament; and a great many newspapers were started, of which the Northern Star, conducted by Feargus O’Connor, had a circulation of 50,000. In November 1839 a Chartist mob consisting of miners and others made an attack on Newport, Mon. The rising was a total failure; the leaders, John Frost and two others, were seized, were found guilty of high treason, and were condemned to death. The sentence, however, was changed to one of transportation, and Frost spent over fourteen years in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1854 he was pardoned, and from 1856 until his death on the 29th of July 1877 he lived in England. In 1840 the Chartist movement was still further organized by the inauguration at Manchester of the National Charter Association, which rapidly became powerful, being the head of about 400 sister societies, which are said to have numbered 40,000 members. Some time after, efforts were made towards a coalition with the more moderate radicals, but these failed; and a land scheme was started by O’Connor, which prospered for a few years. In 1844 the uncompromising spirit of some of the leaders was well illustrated by their hostile attitude towards the Anti-Corn-Law League. O’Connor, especially, entered into a public controversy with Cobden and Bright, in which he was worsted. But it was not till 1848, during a season of great suffering among the working classes, and under the influence of the revolution at Paris, that the real strength of the Chartist movement was discovered and the prevalent discontent became known. Early in March disturbances occurred in Glasgow which required the intervention of the military, while in the manufacturing districts all over the west of Scotland the operatives were ready to rise in the event of the main movement succeeding. Some agitation, too, took place in Edinburgh and in Manchester, but of a milder nature; in fact, while there was a real and widespread discontent, men were indisposed to resort to decided measures.

The principal scene of intended Chartist demonstration was London. An enormous gathering of half a million was announced for the 10th of April on Kennington Common, from which they were to march to the Houses of Parliament to present a petition signed by nearly six million names, in order by this imposing display of numbers to secure the enactment of the six points. Probably some of the more violent members of the party thought to imitate the Parisian mob by taking power entirely into their own hands. The announcement of the procession excited great alarm, and the most decided measures were taken by the authorities to prevent a rising. The procession was forbidden. The military were called out under the command of the duke of Wellington, and by him concealed near the bridges and other points where the procession might attempt to force its way. Even the Bank of England and other public buildings were put in a state of defence, and special constables, to the number, it is said, of 170,000, were enrolled, one of whom was destined shortly after to be the emperor of the French. After all these gigantic preparations on both sides the Chartist demonstration proved to be a very insignificant affair. Instead of half a million, only about 50,000 assembled on Kennington Common, and their leaders, Feargus O’Connor and Ernest Charles Jones, shrank from the responsibility of braving the authorities by conducting the procession to the Houses of Parliament. The monster petition was duly presented, and scrutinized, with the result that the number of signatures was found to have been grossly exaggerated, and that the most unheard-of falsification of names had been resorted to. Thereafter the movement specially called Chartism soon died out. It became merged, so far as its political programme is concerned, with the advancing radicalism of the general democratic movement.