Chartism (Age 16+)
How have historians explained Chartism?
The historical debate
Attempting to explain the nature of Chartism is controversial!
In its most simple terms, Chartism can be defined as: the major working class protest movement of the late 1830s and 1840s, with its name derived from the six point 'People's Charter'. This was a document first drawn up in 1838 by the leaders of the London Working Men's Association and which contained demands for political reform.
But the apparently basic activity of defining the movement masks an ongoing debate between historians over what the movement signified and what it set out to achieve. Is Chartism best viewed as an economic and social movement that developed in response to hardship and deprivation, or as a political movement emerging out of (and subsequently sustained by) a growing sense of working class political consciousness?
This debate has its origins in contemporary comments on the aims of the movement. For example, in a speech made to an early Chartist meeting at Kersal Moor, near Manchester in September 1838, the Tory Methodist Minister and anti-Poor Law activist Joseph Rayner Stephens stated that 'this question of universal suffrage was a knife and fork question after all'.
Stephens' comments, widely interpreted as implying that the economic objectives were at the heart of the movement, were reflected in the work of the first generation of historians to examine Chartism. Indeed, they remained the orthodoxy for over a century until historians such as E P Thompson, writing in the 1960s, began to open up new perspectives on the ability of working class people to organise themselves politically.
The following interpretations offer a synthesis of different historians' views and reflect the two broad positions outlined above:
How have historians explained Chartism?
Chartism was 'a knife and fork question'
Chartism was a product of economic circumstances, and only ever became a mass popular movement when depression was at its most severe - namely in 1839, 1842 and 1848. It therefore represents an expression of 'hunger and hatred' (Cole, 1941) rather than the emergence of significant class or political consciousness.
Economic factors are also the key to understanding and explaining the distribution of Chartist support and the reasons for its ultimate failure. Chartism was certainly, as Stephens described it, 'a knife and fork question'.
As Professor Rostow's 'Social Tension Chart' demonstrates, the coincidence in the extent of economic dislocation and the peaks of Chartist activity are sufficiently obvious to establish the existence of important connections. For example:
How have historians explained Chartism?
Chartism was a political movement
Chartism represents the first genuinely national and genuinely political movement of the British working class. It was the culmination of the developing, but hitherto diverse strands of popular protest, which first emerged in the 1790s. It drew them together in a clear and coherent programme for political reform.
Identification with the aims of the People's Charter during the 1830s and 1840s therefore became for many members of the working class an essential ingredient of what may be described as a collective 'cultural experience' (Thompson 1984).
There was, admittedly, a close connection between the intensity of Chartism and economic distress. However, this relationship was nowhere near as simple or mechanistic as advocates of the socio-economic interpretation like to suggest. For Chartism expressed the deep-seated radical belief that the economic problems experienced by the masses had political origins and therefore required political solutions.
This notion had first been advanced by the radical journalist William Cobbett and other radical leaders in the period after 1815, and the process of working class politicisation was further accelerated by their exclusion from the franchise as a result of the 1832 Reform Act.
In this way the origins and nature of Chartism should not be sought primarily in the worsening economic conditions of the late 1830s, but rather in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act when the lines of political exclusion in Britain were decisively re-drawn.
This interpretation of Chartism as a fundamentally political movement can be sustained on a number of different levels. For example:
Earlier campaigns included the formation of political unions and the struggle for parliamentary reform in 1831-32, the Ten Hours Movement and the anti-Poor Law protests - the latter providing a particularly important organisational building block of Chartism itself.
Chartism therefore represented a crucial stage in the longer-term development of working class political activity in Britain. It is certainly not accurate to argue that all Chartists were mobilised by the immediate and essentially short-term effects of economic depression.
In the light of these factors it is also important to re-evaluate the economically orientated explanation advanced for Chartism's failure. This can also be set in essentially political terms:
Chartism therefore gave expression to a working class political consciousness, which had been growing since the late 18th Century. Although it may have been stirred by more recent economic and social undercurrents, Chartism was, from its inception, a political movement, with political objectives, to be achieved by political means.
Who were the Chartists?
There is no simple answer to the question of who constituted the movement's rank and file. As they left no official membership lists, historians can only speculate about the total number of Chartist supporters. This difficult question is therefore best approached from two different, but ultimately complimentary angles:
In both cases, the conclusions drawn by historians on the issue of Chartist support have tended to be provisional. It is also important to note that neither approach necessarily takes account of the issue of gender. Recent work by historians such as Dorothy Thompson and John Belcham suggest that women played a more prominent role in Chartist activity than previously thought.
Nor do either of these approaches capture the potential for what has been described as informal or fluid membership of the movement through irregular or casual participation in meetings.
Who were the Chartists?
The geographical analysis
The historian Asa Briggs was the first to undertake a systematic analysis of Chartist support and activity region by region. In 1959 Briggs explained his rationale and methodology as follows:
A study of Chartism must begin with a proper appreciation of regional and local diversity. Some of the elements of diversity are measurable - rents, wages, prices, the incidence of unemployment, the degree of dependence on foreign markets. Some however, cannot be measured quantitatively. Variations in local class structure, in the content of local grievances, in the traditions of political leadership and mass agitation, and in the adaptability and persistence of the Chartists and of their opponents require detailed investigation.
Briggs' hypothesis that it is very difficult to understand Chartism without a sound grasp of its regional diversity is linked to the view that membership was strongest in areas where economic hardship was at its most pronounced - as, for instance, in the declining centres of the old domestic industry or in the new single industry towns like Stockport and Bolton.
However, whilst Chartism was more prominent in some areas than others, there is a danger in assuming that such regional diversity can be explained in exclusively economic terms.
The most intense centres of Chartist activity in England were the textile areas of Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Each of these areas had a long tradition of political radicalism, which had been further sharpened by the development of the factory and anti-poor law movements during the early 1830s. For example, the historian J F C Harrison has pointed out how 'Leeds Chartism was determined largely by its origins in earlier Radical and working class movements.' (Briggs 1959).
These areas were followed in intensity by the North East, Midlands and London where, according to the historian David Goodway, 'Chartism inherited another metropolitan tradition form the 1790s, that of insurrectionary conspiracy.' (Goodway 1982).
In Scotland, Chartism drew its greatest support from the central valley and east coast lowlands, especially the Glasgow area.
Who were the Chartists?
Was Chartism a national movement?
The apparent diversity of both the occupations and regions involved in Chartist activity has led some historians to question whether Chartism should be regarded as a national movement at all. Briggs, for example, has contended that Chartism lacked any underlying sense of national unity and that it is best seen as a 'snowball' of local movements - in other words, it is better to talk about 'chartists' rather than 'Chartism'.
More recent surveys of the movement than Briggs' in 1959 have attempted to modify this view by suggesting that, despite its local diversity, the national dimension to Chartism was very important. There is probably a historiographical as well as historical issue here. As the historian James Epstein puts it:
With the publication of Chartist Studies (1959), there has been a serious attempt to get back to the local roots of Chartist protest. Asa Briggs noted that a proliferation of local Chartist histories was a prerequisite to any new narrative history of Chartism. Since then there has been such a proliferation. At its best, such local work has provided valuable insight into the character of rank and file Chartist activity; however, all too often, such studies have suffered from the losing sight of the national framework which led to local protest ...an understanding of Chartism must take into account the attempt to transcend local diversity, to create a sense of national class consciousness and to establish a national political party of the working class.
Many historians now share Epstein's view that there is a danger in too great an emphasis on the study of local movements and that this may distort the overall picture of Chartism that finally emerges. They point out how Chartism was bound together by the constant touring of the national leaders, itinerant lecturers and central organisations such as the National Charter Association set up by Feargus O'Connor in 1840.
Also significant in this respect was the role of the Chartist press. O'Connor's Northern Star newspaper enjoyed a peak circulation of around 50,000 copies in 1839 and consequently did much to disseminate Chartist ideas and propaganda to a national audience.
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How important was the role of Feargus O'Connor?
O'Connor as demagogue
This highly critical and destructive interpretation of O'Connor's impact on Chartism can be traced back to the writings of William Lovett, O'Connor's chief long-term rival for the overall leadership of the movement. In his memoirs, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, published in 1876, Lovett attacked O'Connor on the grounds that:
By his constant appeals to selfishness, vanity and the mere animal propensities of man, he succeeded in calling up a spirit of hate, intolerance and brute feeling, previously unknown among Reformers.
This critique of O'Connor was also reflected in the work of R G Gammage, the first historian of the movement, who also preferred the more moderate and balanced approach of Lovett. This was sustained by Mark Hovell, a historian writing in the first part of the twentieth century. As Hovell concludes:
O'Connor's character was such that no man of independence, talents and integrity could long co-operate with him.
How important was the role of Feargus O'Connor?
Gammage's assessment in 1854
Possessed of a clear and masterly intellect and great powers of application, everything he attempted was certain of accomplishment; and, though not by any means an orator, he was in matters of business more useful to the movement than those who were gifted with finer powers of speech.
If ever men deserved to be classed among cowards... and to meet with the scorn and derision of mankind it must be... the ancestors of O'Connor. He showed himself to be either cowardly or treacherous towards those whom he styled his friends. A love of popularity was the besetting sin of O'Connor. To win and retain that popularity, with O'Connor all means were justified.
How important was the role of Feargus O'Connor?
Lovett's assessment of O'Connor and 'physical force' Chartism
From a speech in July 1839:
The whole physical force agitation is harmful and injurious to the movement. Muskets are not what are wanted, but education and schooling of the working people. Stephens and O'Connor are shattering the movement... violent words do not slay the enemies but the friends of the movement. O'Connor wants to take everything by storm, and to pass the Charter into law within a year. All is hurry and haste, but this bluster and menace of armed opposition can only lead to premature outbreaks and to the destruction of Chartism.
Adapted from Lovett's memoirs, published in 1876:
I regard Feargus O'Connor as the chief troublemaker of our movement... a man who, by his personal conduct joined to his malignant influence in the Northern Star, has been the blight of democracy from the first moment he opened his mouth as its professed advocate... By his great professions, by trickery and deceit, he got the aid of the working class to establish an organ to spread their principles, which he soon converted into an instrument for destroying everything intellectual and moral in our movement... By his constant appeals to the selfishness, vanity, and mere animal feelings of man, he succeeded in calling up a spirit of hate, intolerance and brute feeling, previously unknown among Reformers.
O'Connor as a skillful politician
Historians such as Thompson, Saville and, in particular, Epstein argue that without O'Connor's combination of innovative leadership, organisational skills and oratory, Chartism would never have developed as a genuinely national movement.
If anything, they believe that it is Lovett and the conservative LWMA who should be criticised for failing to develop a more expansive strategy for the movement's development beyond the capital. Epstein, for example, believes that:
As Chartism's most prominent national leader, O'Connor played a central role in maintaining the movement's radical challenge. He was able to unite the forces of Chartism behind his leadership. His popularity was based on his unrivalled talents as an agitator, his brilliance as an orator, his indefatigable energy in the radical cause; but his standing within the ranks of Chartism was also founded upon the consistent and intelligent leadership which he had provided since the mid 1830s.
The consensus among these historians is that O'Connor possessed outstanding abilities as a radical leader. These include:
skills as a propagandist
O'Connor, who had trained as a lawyer in his native Ireland, first established himself in radical circles in the early 1830s as a flamboyant orator. His speaking tours in the north of the country in 1835 did much to mobilise widespread support for a more coherent programme of parliamentary reform.
He therefore emerged as the successor to Henry Hunt as the master of the 'radical platform' -the almost ritualised strategy of powerfully addressing vast public meetings in a manner and tone designed to impress and intimidate the authorities.
For O'Connor, this was really an elaborate form of bluff. Although frequently caricatured as a 'physical force' Chartist, O'Connor's aim was to 'mime' insurrection rather than provoke actual violence - his hope being that the authorities would then be frightened into concession and reform.
O'Connor as an organisational innovator
Historians such as Epstein and Royle believe that O'Connor did far more than any other Chartist leader to develop the organisational structure of the movement.
Indeed, they claim that he effectively established the basis of a recognisably 'modern' pressure group. O'Connor was, for example, instrumental in the establishment of the National Charter Association which was set up in Manchester in July 1840 and aimed to co-ordinate Chartist activity across the country.
Royle describes the NCA as the 'backbone' of Chartist organisation, and with its 400 branches and 50,000 members, it represented 'arguably the first national political organisation' (Cunningham, 1990).
The NCA was certainly dominated by O'Connor and, although a rival National Association was set up by Lovett, this never achieved the same degree of executive control over the movement's activities.
Despite its ultimate failure, the Land Plan should also be interpreted in relation to O'Connor's skills as an organiser:
This was O'Connor at his most visionary, and it is clear from the strength of the response over this issue that he had made contact with the aspirations of the world's first industrial working class, to an extraordinary extent.
O'Connor as a propagandist
The final strand in what has been described as O'Connor's innovatory leadership of the movement is his skilful use of the Northern Star newspaper to spread both Chartist ideas and to raise funds.
O'Connor himself had launched the Northern Star in Leeds in 1837 as an anti-Poor Law publication. However, it rapidly developed into the principal vehicle for the dissemination of Chartist ideas across the country, and at its peak enjoyed a circulation of around 50,000 copies.
Royle has no doubt about the paper's importance in the development of a national Chartist 'culture', and a communal copy was frequently read aloud at meetings so that even the non-literate could be kept informed of developments and ideas.
As Royle concludes:
The Northern Star is now regarded as probably the most important element in the Chartist organisation. It gave voice to the whole movement, reporting activities in obscure corners of the land, conveying the content of major speeches by national figures in a style intended for reading out aloud and providing a public forum for discussion of policy. Additionally, the Star was sufficiently profitable to fund the wider movement, enabling O'Connor to employ local reporters (often from among the unemployed or victimised) who could then in effect provide a semi-professional local leadership.
Why did Chartism fail?
The 'economic factors' interpretation
A concentration on economic factors in the collapse of the movement after 1848 provides both the simplest and the 'neatest' explanation of Chartism's failure. Much as worsening economic conditions in the period after 1837 gave rise to the movement, so the alleged stability, growing prosperity and rising living standards of the period after 1848 removed the mass basis for widespread discontent. Chartism could therefore simply no longer be sustained.
At its most basic level, this interpretation of the movement's failure has lost much of its credibility: economic historians have, for example, begun to question just how stable the British economy really was during the so-called 'Mid-Victorian Boom' of c1850-1873. So, by extension, it is also possible to question whether these conditions contributed to Chartism's demise.
On the other hand, and at a more complex level, an explanation which links the failure of Chartism to the economy may still be valid. Rather than increasing prosperity per se causing the disappearance of the movement, it may be better to argue that it was a series of more subtle economic changes which undermined the movement after 1848.
The development of the railways, for example, provided an important stimulus to other industries such as iron, steel and coal. This in turn meant that economic growth was less narrowly based than in the period before 1850, when textiles were very much the 'leading sector'.
Similarly, the period after 1850 witnessed the first real impact of factory legislation, which went some way to redefining management practices and relationships in the workplace.
As part of this process, the 1850s and 1860s also saw the development of a new and more moderate form of trade unionism - the so-called 'New Model Unions'. Some historians have interpreted these unions as representing the interests of an emerging 'labour aristocracy', the wealthiest 10-15% of the working class who were now enjoying superior wages and improved working conditions.
Whereas this group would previously have provided the leadership for a working class protest movement such as Chartism, the increasingly favourable economic climate of the 1850s and 1860s prompted them to work more closely with employers to consolidate their improving position.
Some Marxist historians have described this process as the 'embourgoisement' (making more middle class) of the working population. They directly relate it to economic changes in the period after 1850 and argue that it made the survival of a movement such as Chartism increasingly difficult.
The focus of agitation, orchestrated by trade unions and Friendly Societies, now switched to gaining gradual improvements within the existing economic framework, rather than a sweeping political victory which might change that system all together.
The 'inherant weakness' interpretation
If it is accepted that Chartism was more than a 'knee-jerk' reaction to economic circumstances and that it did exhibit the characteristics of a political movement, then it is obviously difficult to attribute its failure purely to economic factors - however these are interpreted.
An alternative interpretation of Chartism's failure focuses on the idea that whilst it was almost certainly a political movement, it was one riddled with inherent weaknesses, namely:
The bitter personal rivalry between O'Connor and Lovett exacerbated the underlying divisions within the movement over strategy and tactics. The basic division between the moral force and physical force approach to securing change proved to be irreconcilable and, after 1840, the movement fragmented into what were, in effect, a series of splinter groups.
This fragmentation also emphasised the regional differences that existed within the movement:
The physical force element within Chartism was also significant in so far as it alienated any lasting middle class support for the movement.
Chartism therefore pushed itself into a tactical corner which was predominantly of its own making. Once the government had made it clear that it was not to be intimidated by the tactics of either the mass platform or petitioning, the leadership really needed to redefine its approach more clearly in one direction or the other.
However, the moral force 'New Move' simply accelerated the growing diversification of the movement, whilst physical force Chartists lacked both the will and resources to organise a mass uprising. This was evident even at the 'height' of physical force activity, and the fact that some 30 troops in the Westgate Hotel in Newport could defeat thousands of armed protesters highlights the weaknesses of even the most militant of Chartists.
The 'power of the state' interpretation
On the other hand, rather than looking 'inside' the movement to explain its failure, some historians suggest that it is more instructive to look outwards and consider the way in which the state dealt with the Chartist threat.
In this respect, the role of the state in the failure of Chartism needs to be considered. This can be done at two different if ultimately complimentary levels:
In this respect, it could be argued that the movement did not simply fail but rather that it was defeated by the government's combination of repression and reform.
Nevertheless, in view of the emerging consensus that Chartism was, on balance, a relatively sophisticated and effective protest movement, the argument that it failed due to inherent weaknesses therefore becomes less compelling and the idea of defeat at the hands of the state all the more so.
It is, of course, possible to combine different elements of these interpretations. For example, the historian Dorothy Thompson suggests that whilst Chartism emerged as a political response to the process of industrial change, so, paradoxically, that very same process of change helped also to kill it off!
Chartism was a 'cultural' or community-based experience and, as such, it needed small communities in which workers shared common experiences to survive. However, as larger cities began to develop, so working class communities could be more easily divided, isolated and 'socially controlled' by police, teachers and the Church. Consequently, the changing social context of everyday working life meant that different forms of working class organisation replaced the old style mass politics of the radical platform - trade unionism being the best example.
The failure of Chartism is also sometimes explained by way of a comparison with the reasons for the apparent success of the Anti-Corn Law League - a predominantly middle class pressure group which emerged at almost exactly the same time as Chartism. At least at first sight, the Anti-Corn Law League appeared to possess all the advantages of a pressure group which the Chartists correspondingly lacked:
Using this model of explanation, it could therefore be concluded that Chartism demanded too much, too quickly, too soon.
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