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Chartism

Chartism, workingmen's political reform movement in Great Britain, 1838–48. It derived its name from the People's Charter, a document published in May, 1838, that called for voting by ballot, universal male suffrage, annual Parliaments, equal electoral districts, no property qualifications for members of Parliament, and payment of members. The charter was drafted by the London Working Men's Association, an organization founded (1836) by William Lovett and others, but the movement gathered momentum largely because of the fervor and rhetorical talents of Feargus O'Connor. He traveled widely, especially in the north, where recurrent economic depressions and the constraints of the new poor law (1834) had bred especially deep discontent, and recruited support for the charter. In Aug., 1838, the charter was adopted at a national convention of workingmen's organizations in Birmingham. The following February another convention, calling itself the People's Parliament, met in London. A Chartist petition was presented to Parliament (and summarily rejected), but the convention rapidly lost support as the multiplicity of aims among its members and rivalries among its leaders became apparent. Riots in July and a confrontation between Chartist miners and the military at Newport, Wales, in November led to the arrest of most of the Chartist leaders by the end of 1839. In 1840, O'Connor founded the National Charter Association (NCA) in an attempt to centralize the organization of the movement, but most of the other leaders refused to support his efforts. It was the NCA that drafted and presented to Parliament the second Chartist petition in 1842. It too was overwhelmingly rejected. By this time the vitality of Chartism was being undermined by a revival of trade unionism, the growth of the Anti-Corn Law League, and a trend toward improvement in working-class economic conditions. O'Connor began to devote himself to a scheme for settling laborers on the land as small holders. The last burst of Chartism was sparked by an economic crisis in 1847–48. In Apr., 1848, a new convention was summoned to London to draft a petition, and a mass demonstration and procession planned to present the petition to Parliament. The authorities took extensive precautions against trouble, but the demonstration was rained out and the procession, which had been forbidden, did not take place. This fiasco marked the end of Chartism in London, although the movement survived for a while in some other parts of the country.

See A. Briggs, ed., Chartist Studies (1959); M. Hovell, The Chartist Movement (3d ed. 1967); J. T. Ward, Chartism (1973); D. Goodway, London Chartism, 1838–1848 (1982); C. Godfrey, Chartist Lives (1987).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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