Chartism was a popular mass movement

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Chartism was a popular mass movement against the actions of the Whig government and the laws passed by post-Reform Parliament. One interpretation of this uprising was that it was a result of disappointment with the Great Reform Act, or more generally, the result of discontent with the political situation. Another interpretation is that it was more the social and economic factors which generated the level of discontent necessary for Chartism to take form.

The Great Reform Act, although undoubtedly changing the landscape of British politics, did contain many elements of continuity: there was still massive over-representation in the South relative to the bigger industrial towns in the North, such as Manchester; ownership of property was still the basis for enfranchisement, meaning that the working classes were effectively excluded from the vote while the middle classes managed to gain enfranchisement; the landed classes still dominated Parliament. After campaigning with the fervour they did, the working classes felt betrayed by the middle classes and angry at the lack of change. The continuing lack of enfranchisement meant that the working classes still had no political rights, which almost certainly contributed to the rise of Chartism, as one of the “Six Points” was for universal manhood suffrage.

The existence of the property qualification to become an MP was also a reason for the rise of Chartism, as it is also addressed in the “Six Points”: in fact, all of the “Six Points” are related to discontent with the existing political system, caused by the inadequacy of the Great Reform Act. Also supporting the interpretation that Chartism was borne out of the political frustration of the working classes was the anti-Poor Law campaign, arguably the most punitive law introduced by the post-Reform Parliament: to many of the working classes, it was tantamount to robbing them out of poor relief and forcing them into workhouses, for which conditions were made intentionally abysmal.

Many Chartist leaders, including Fergus O’Connell, toured the country in an attempt to raise opposition to the Poor Law, with O’Connell also utilising his Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star. However, while the ‘idle’ (landed) classes remained in Parliament and the people remained firmly excluded from it, there would be no hope of repealing the Poor Law: therefore, to progress, working men would have to enter Parliament itself to improve their own lives. This logic can be seen in two of the “Six Points”, which call for the “abolition of the property qualification for MPs” and “payment for MPs”, which would allow those without great hoards of money to become an MP. The great frustration caused by the Poor Law, then, is also a noteworthy political reason for the rise of Chartism. The harshness of the Whig government was also a reason for the rise of Chartism, and this was seen no more clearly than in the case of trade unions, specifically the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Upon the legalisation of trade unions in the Repeal of the Combinations Act 1824, many unions (unsurprisingly) began forming. However, as larger-scale and more permanent unions began to form, the government became worried, and determined to smother unionism.

This can be seen in the excessively repressive nature of their action against six farm labourers from Tolpuddle, who were sentenced to seven years transportation for making illegal oaths when joining a trade union. This action led to both a rapid decline in trade union membership and government popularity. This type of political measure spurred on the masses to join the Chartist movement. Finally, the pre-1832 radical activity (e.g. Luddism) will have also contributed to the rise of Chartism. This continuity of radicalism would form a solid base of support for anyone willing to form a populist movement. Moreover, the radical writings of those such as Paine (who wrote the Rights of Man in 1791) still resounded with people as well as they had done under the rule of the ‘reactionary’ Tory government. The interpretation that Chartism was a politically-motivated movement, then, has much to commend it. However, although the Great Reform Act had a lot to do with the rise of Chartism, it was not the only reason for political unrest.

The alternate interpretation of the cause for the emergence of a Chartist movement is that it was due to a variety of social and economic reasons: the economic downturn in the late 1830s (exacerbated by the European Potato Famine which followed in the 1840s) generated huge socio-economic discontent. This came in the form of hunger and poor living conditions. Norman Gash summed up this interpretation: “Hungry bellies filled the ranks of the Chartists”, by which it is implied that it was the economy, not the Great Reform Act or any other political manoeuvring by the government, which led to Chartism becoming a mass movement. That the times of economic depression in the 1830s always were the times at which support for Chartism was the highest also supports this interpretation, as it shows people turning to radicalism in times of hardship. Finally, it was because of the poor economy (i.e. lack of trade) that unemployment increased vastly, which also led to the rise of Chartism. Without means of supporting themselves or their families, workers had a choice: starve or campaign. It is clear, then, that the economy and social factors also had far-reaching and large-scale impacts on the popularity of the Chartist movement.

It may be most prudent to suggest that Chartism was a movement borne out of an amalgamation of both the political and socio-economic hardships of the popular masses (with the political hardships due in no small part to the poorness and insufficiency of the Great Reform Act): the Charter would allow the British people to gain more political power, and with this political power they could tackle the socio-economic problems they faced, such as hunger, unemployment and low wages, which fuelled the search for political power in the first place, thus eradicating this vicious cycle, in the hope of creating a fairer society.

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