In this article Eddie Doveton discusses the formation and early years of the 19th century working class movement known as ‘The Chartists’.
The Chartist Movement existed in Britain for a little more than ten years, between 1837 and 1850. It was perhaps the most significant working-class movements of the 19th century. At its widest extended it was felt throughout England, Wales and Scotland, and in a different way, both influenced and was influenced by the struggles in Ireland. At the heart of this movement was one of those rare historical situations where the economic and political struggle of the working class came together.
The name ‘Chartists’ comes directly from the ‘People’s Charter’ a document of six demands which was first published in 1838. This charter formed a national focus point for a mass movement looking to change society in favour of the working class. The six demands were:
- The vote for all adult males
- Payment for members of Parliament
- Each constituency should have roughly the same number of voters
- Voting should be by secret ballot
- No property qualification (the holding of property) in order to be an MP
- General Elections held once a year.
All these demands centred on issues of voting, how voting should be carried out and the ability to be a Member of Parliament. History books often present the Charter as the working class demanding the ‘right to vote’ – a democratic demand which we would all support. It is however, presented as part of a smoothed out history showing the gradual development of modern democracy in Britain today. But this is a false picture, designed to brush away what was in reality a harsh class struggle. This type of history attempts to deny that the source of what little and limited democratic gains we do have in society today have been won through the blood and tears of the working class fighting for those rights.
Also hidden in this smoothed out history is how the working class and the ruling class, saw the Chartist movement and its demands. For both it was a question of which class would control the state and which class would have a majority in Parliament. For the working class, gaining the vote and having working class members sit in Parliament meant that they could enact laws that would favour the working class. The ruling class knew that they had to retain control, because at this time, the working class directly linked obtaining the vote to their economic struggles as a class. This point is critical to understanding the role of Chartism as a working class movement.
The meaning of the working class gaining the vote was widely understood at that time, by both the workers and the ruling elites. This was still expressed two decades later, when in 1860 the Chairman of the Huddersfield Conservative Association was still continuing to argue against reform on this basis, because: “to lower the franchise without any respect to class, must inevitably be a class reform bill, because it must throw the governing power into the hands of the least educated and of course the poorer classes of the community.” Consequently, he would oppose any bill “that should give to any class the exclusive power of the government of this country.” By which he meant that it should stay in the hands of the upper and middle classes and not pass to the working class, which would be the majority (Guardian 7th January 1860).
We can understand this more by exploring two aspects of the history in more detail: firstly, how the workers at the time saw the six parliamentary reforms, and secondly, the relationship of the Charter as a parliamentary demand to the class struggle.
The Six Demands
The first demand of the Charter was for the vote for all males over 21, directly related to the idea was that the working class, including the agricultural labourer, were the majority class in society. The achieving the vote was not primarily a ‘human rights’ issue, but one of gaining class power.
The second and fifth demands of the Charter were designed to provide a salary for members of Parliament and the removal of property qualifications required as an MP. If we think about parliamentary salaries and allowances today, the Chartists would undoubtedly turn in their graves at the corruption and money grabbing of MPs. But this measure was put forward to ensure a living wage for working class people, so they could actually become MPs. Members of Parliament did not receive any salary until 1911, as a consequence only those with ‘private incomes’ could afford to be MPs. This effectively excluded members of the working class who did not have any other source of income than working for a living. The spirit of the Chartist demand lives today in the call for all MPs to receive only the average wage of a worker.
The reference to ‘property qualifications’ was more direct. Borough MPs (there were also MPs elected by the County) were required to have an annual income of at least £300 derived from the ownership of land. This was clearly designed to exclude both the working class and even small proprietors – who also often identified with their working class customers – and ensure that only the well-to-do middle class or the larger landowner, could sit in Parliament.
The fourth demand was for a secret ballot. Again, this was a practical proposal. At a time when voting was open and conducted by a show of hands, local employers and landowners could intimidate any dependent voter. They did this by making it plain that unless the workers voted for the candidate of the employer’s choice, then the workers would lose their employment or be thrown off the farm. Equally, the wealthy could bribe the less committed voters. The secret ballot would enable workers to vote in their own interests and not that of the employers, and being a secret, undermined any attempts at bribery by those who could afford to bribe.
The final demand was for annual Parliaments. This was seen as the ability for working people to hold their representatives to account. If they did not like what they were doing in Parliament, they did not have to wait the seven years between elections (today the period is still five years). Representatives could be made accountable on an annual basis. This echoes the modern demand that all representatives should be subject to the right of recall, and not hold positions for years on end without any accountability.
The Charter and Class Struggle
Even though five of the six demands of the Charter have subsequently been won, this has been through struggle by the working class, not with Parliament’s willing consent. Parliament still remains an institution that is distant from the ordinary person, corrupted by professional politicians who make a career out of twisting the truth and hiding the facts. When the Chartist’s campaign developed, it was not just a set of demands upon Parliament, nor was it merely about voting in the abstract. It needs to be understood within the context of the historical circumstances and class struggle at that time. This brings us to the second aspect: the relationship of the Charter as a parliamentary demand to the class struggle.
Consider the role of parliamentary elections today. Why, for example, did the parliamentary elections in South Africa just after majority black rule was won, or in Venezuela over the past fifteen years, both formed an element of the class struggle in those societies, when by contrast, general elections in Britain have become a much more passive affair?
In Britain, voting is at an all time low and all main parties are rightly seen as the same. ‘Voting won’t change anything’ is the mood in Britain. The difference between the South African and Venezuela examples and Britain lies in the changing meaning and significance of parliamentary elections. Elections can form part of the wider struggle of the working class, who are fighting for change, but can equally serve and reinforce the establishment. At heart the difference lies in the extent that significant layers of the working class link the elections and election campaigns as part of their struggle to bring about social and economic change.
We see a similar process with the demands of the historical Chartist movement. The political demands for democratic change were seen as a means to give the working class power, so that a working class Parliament could make economic changes in their lives: it could pass laws to tame the employers and support trade unions, improve wages and working conditions and close down the hated workhouses. What appears to us today as mere parliamentary reforms, were in the eyes of many of the Chartists a means to dramatically change the quality of their lives. It was a means to give them power in society. That is why the Chartist movement had such strength and wide-spread support, and why the ruling elites feared it so much. The question was not just about having the vote and turning out on Election Day, but rather gaining the vote was a means to an end; to bring about change in society.
But the focus on elections and voting also has a negative side. We see this in the history of Chartism and in what happened subsequently, many times, in the history of the labour movement. If the emphasis for change is put entirely within a parliamentary perspective, rather than also being part of a wider movement for change, then defeat is around the corner. Any effective change in society also needs to be backed up by active mobilisation of the working class, using its own numerical strength to push through change and impose its will against the resistance of the ruling class. If this is ignored or minimised, then the parliamentary system can only work to sustain and support existing society.
Within Britain today, the huge upsurge of support for Corbyn that arose in 2015, and the subsequent massive increase in Labour Party membership is a modern example of a potential social movement of change. A movement that could have combined linking activities within communities, workplaces and unions to parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, that opportunity was lost, as the new members remained disempowered, atomised and largely taken as isolated individuals, who are looked upon as a source of revenue and as foot-soldiers for election campaigns. In the absence of such a social movement linked to extra-parliamentary campaigns, the opportunity to realise the hope and aspirations that the Corbyn upsurge represented are quickly fading.
The Beginning of the Chartist Movement
The 6th August 1838 marks the formal beginnings of the Chartist movement. This is when, for the first time, a mass meeting in Birmingham formally adopted the six points of the Charter. However, the origins of the Charter itself goes back to 1836 when the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), adopted five of the six points of the Charter and subsequently prepared a petition adding the sixth point by January 1837, with the intention of presenting this to Parliament.(Royle 1980)
But working class activists in the industrial areas of Britain did not welcome the initial publication of the Charter. They were busy engaged in front-line struggles against the Poor Law Act of 1834, a draconian piece of legislation, designed to force down wages by threatening incarceration into what amounted to prisons for the unemployed and the poor. They saw the Charter as a diversion from these struggles.
It appeared to the activists that a petition presented to a Parliament stuffed full of Liberal and Tory MPs — the very people who had passed the Poor Law Act — was a waste of time. Even more so, workers suspected that the idea of a petition was set up by Liberals to divert the class struggle away from direct action, to focus on a passive collection of signatures for the Chartist petition.
This attitude was based on the experience of workers, where whole numbers of petitions had been presented to Parliament, but were then simply ignored. As a consequence, the politically organised working class had developed a reluctance to use petitions as a political method. Added to this well-earned experience was the suspicious way in which the Charter and the idea of a petition actually emerged. Individuals within the LWMA (a moderate and reformist body who favoured links and association with the liberals) wrote the Charter.
When the petition first appeared, the main signatories included employers and older, less militant workers, not the militants fighting in the areas. In addition, six MPs, not particularly regarded as radical, also signed the petition and offered their support. Subsequently these individuals would not be associated with the Charter, as it developed as a movement and took on a mass form. But their names at the beginning of the process produced suspicion. This suspicion was given substance when one of these Member of Parliament, Daniel O’Connell, was quoted as saying that he signed the petition “only to divert workers away from more potentially dangerous political activities”. At the same time, Francis Place, one of the LWMA members who helped draft the Charter, also made it plain that he did so on condition that socialism should not be advocated (Thompson 1984).
Changing Character of the Charter
But three factors came together, which shifted this initial attitude and would make the Charter the focus of a national campaign.
Firstly, by the autumn of 1838, the direct-action campaign against the Poor Law legislation was failing. Despite local attempts to prevent the opening of the new workhouses, and pickets and protest meetings being held to hold up the appointment of the new Poor Law guardians, slowly and surely, the new system was put into place. This set the scene for working activists to look for a broader political solution, which the Charter, being published only a few months before, seemed to offer. The logic was plain: if you cannot affect the implementation of the Poor Law at a local level, it was necessary to change at a national level.
Secondly, a proposal to have a mass demonstration, whilst presenting the Charter’s petition to Parliament, was put forward. Traditionally, small delegations had made presentations of petitions; they would hand in the document to MPs or drop it off at the door of the House of Commons. The new proposal was that the Chartist petition would be presented to House of Commons as part of a mass demonstration. Thousands, therefore, would march through the streets of London, converging upon Parliament. In this sense, what had traditionally been an entirely passive activity tinged with deference to the high and mighty, was now turned into a ‘show of force’.
Thirdly, at the mass meeting in Birmingham on 6th August 1838, the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) proposed an innovation that changed the character of the Charter. The BPU, although a moderate body, put forward the idea of a national Convention of people’s representatives, as a means of coordinating the charter campaign and an opportunity to discuss the strategy of presenting the petition to Parliament.
It is doubtful that the moderate BPU understood the implicit significance of its own proposals. For combined with the idea of having a mass demonstration as the petition was presented, the calling of a convention involving representative delegates, proved a catalyst to giving a national identity to the charter campaign. The Convention would almost immediately be seen as the forming of an alternative ‘people’s Parliament’, and as a national leadership body of the working class.
These three factors effectively changed the character of the proposed Charter, creating the basis for a working class movement that could express the needs and aspirations of the working class.
The huge amount of activity and preparation undertaken in local areas is critical to understanding Chartism. While there was a focus at a national level on the political campaign of the Charter, many Chartists also realised that they would have to achieve the demands by force of arms, precisely because the landlords and capitalists who dominated Parliament under a restricted franchise, would not grant the working class the vote. The preparations on the ground were seen as a necessary part of achieving the demands. There is significant evidence that the workers in many of the local areas were ready to ‘do battle’. As Chase (2007) comments, referring to the meetings that were held in 1838, including the incredible mass meetings of hundreds of thousands held on the moors in the day, or the many more smaller meetings held in touch-light at night; “…significant numbers attending were armed with stick and pikes.” “…As autumn turned to winter, the crowds became bolder. The discharge of firearms was reported at a number of meetings.”
Gammage, a Chartist historian who participated in the events, paints an emotional picture of the mood at the time: “It is almost impossible to imagine the excitement caused by these manifestations.” “…The people did not go singly to the place of meeting, but met in a body at a starting point, from whence, at a given time, they issued in huge numbers, formed into procession, traversing the principal streets, making the heavens echo with the thunder of their cheers.” (Gammage 1894). This was the action that would give substance to the parliamentary campaign.
Electing Delegates to the Convention
The Seditious Meetings Act of 1817, a repressive law brought in by the British state, circumscribed the way in which the Convention would have to elect its delegates, and the total number of delegates it was allowed. This was designed to curtail the working class from developing effective national organisations. These laws stated that there could be no more than forty-nine delegates, and that these could not be from any specific organisation. These delegates could only be elected at a public meeting advertised in advance. Equally there were restrictions on raising finance to organise such events (Chase 2007).
Although the active members were able to get around some of these restrictions, the election of delegates at mass public meetings shifted the political balance of the delegates, away from local activists towards the election of nationally known figures. These were men who had either independent incomes or who made a living out of public speaking. The national speakers were personalities that travelled the national speaker’s circuit addressing public meetings. Working class organisations were mostly locally in single towns or areas; and there were only a handful of loosely organised regional organisations in London, Birmingham and what was known as the Great Northern Union.
Absent from this picture was any national organisation. It was into this vacuum that the individuals, who were able to travel from area to area, giving lecturers on working class issues, and supporting working class campaigns, became national figureheads. The consequence of this is that the national speakers from two of the larger organisations — the moderate London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) and the previously mentioned BPU — gained a disproportionate number of delegates, several of whom were also elected for areas outside London and Birmingham.
Chase (2007) argues that the middle class background of the delegates to the Convention is overrated as an issue, suggesting that approximately two-thirds of the delegates were workmen; although Royle (1980), in his shorter work, suggests this is more like fifty percent. However, while the weight of the middle class delegates would be an important factor, this is less important than the political balance of the Convention, a factor not solely dependent upon class. As Trotsky has commented; “classes themselves comprise of different and in part antagonistic layers”, which fall “under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes.” (Trotsky 1940). A significant proportion of the working class delegates were from the more moderate organisations or themselves from the artisan class of ‘self-made’ workers, giving them a different perspective from the majority of the other workers. Equally, the delegates who would attend the Convention, over the next year, were all elected in the early months of the formation of Chartism, before any critical issues were discussed and when the Convention as a whole was untested. This composition of the convention would subsequently have significant consequences to outcome to the 1838-1839 campaign.
As 1838 came to a close, an economic recession, which had started during the year, deepened. For many workers, this would mean starvation or imprisonment in the new workhouses, named ‘the Bastilles’, after the notorious French prison that was stormed at the opening of the French Revolution in 1789. This was a disaster for working people and formed a backdrop to increasing working class militancy. As the year turned and 1839 opened, the Chartist movements focus and expectation was shifting towards the coming Convention of delegates. At this stage, signatures for the petition were still being gathered in the local areas. The emphasis was on how the Convention would develop a strategy to take the struggle forward in preparing for the presentation of the petition and organising a working class response, and what for many was the expected rejection of the petition by Parliament.
The convention first met at the beginning of February 1839, meeting in London, with the formal title of the General Convention of the Industrious Classes. As soon as the Convention opened, different opinions and strategies began to reveal themselves. Historically these divisions have been placed into two main groups: the physical-force and the moral-force Chartists. In modern terms, we might think of these as the left wing and the right wing of the Chartist movement. The physical-force Chartists embodied everyone from revolutionaries to those who sounded left, but in the end went for compromise. The moral-force Chartists were those who, from the outset, argued for compromise and agreements with the left wing of the Liberal Party (The Liberals were then in government, and the ‘left’ liberals were known as radicals). But the political opinions of individual delegates to the Convention were more complex than this simple division of physical and moral force Chartists. There were also individuals who that sat in the middle and would swing to support one side or another.
At the start of the Convention delegate James Cobbett, son of the Liberal reformer William Cobbett, took the most right wing position. He attempted to have the Convention activities confined solely to organising the presentation of the petition. This proposal echoed closely the views of the liberal government itself, who were quiet happy to merely receive and then reject any petition presented to it. Cobbett’s proposals however, were heavily defeated (Chase 2007).
Although within the Convention there was not any open discussion of the use of armed force as a tactic, its presence as a back up to the petition was implied in the debates. In particular this came out in the discussion around the using the tactic of the ‘national holiday’ or ‘holy month’, or what we would call a general strike. Here the right for workers to arm themselves as a means of defence against attacks by the state, who were expected to use force to coerce striking workers back to work, was discussed.
In the discussion on the general strike, the differences between the moral-force and the physical-force Chartists centred on the issue of timing. The moral-force Chartists advocated action at some point in the future; the physical-force Chartists argued for the strike to begin immediately or soon after the Convention, timing this to coincide with Parliament’s expected rejection of the petition. The arguments both sides rehearsed have a very modern ring. The moderates essentially arguing that the working class ‘were not ready’. Bronterre O’Brien, in the political centre, argued that before any action could be taken, at least two or three million signatures should be collected on the petition. On the left, Chartist Richard Marsden put forward the alternative militant argument in the Charter newspaper:
“The working men of the north signed the petition for the Charter, under the impression that the men who spoke for them of the holy week were sincere. None of the industrious classes, who signed the petition in this belief, ever thought for one moment that the legislature would grant the Charter. …all they had to do was to let the country know when the sacred week was to commence.”(Chase 2007)
Delay and Prevarication
History shows us that the character of the arguments of the moderates results in delay and prevarication, in which lie the seeds of defeat and disaster. It is precisely because the class struggle unfolds in a dynamic fashion, that waiting for some point of time in the future, means that the ruling elites, thier wealth threatened by ‘the masses’, have time to organise and strike back. At the same time, the mood of expectation and struggle dies down, weakening the movement. The practicalities of life mean there is a need to put bread on the table, and this strongly affects workers and their families: they cannot wait for a theoretical future, but need to act in the here and now.
The moderates at the Convention were focused on the quantity of signatures to the petition being submitted. But in many areas this was not the main concern of workers, rather organising to oppose the government took up much of the energies of local Chartists. The petition was a useful addendum to the campaign, but not its heart. In February, the Chartist movement witnessed hundreds of meetings around the country, many which were attended by tens of thousands of workers. Attendance on a national scale could be estimated in the millions. Yet the Convention delayed and set the submission of the petition nearly three months ahead, arguing, that in spite of the meetings, the lack of a wide national coverage of signatures on the petition was important. After much debate, the presentation of the petition was postponed until May 6th.
Lovett, one of the moderates, pushed for time and effort to obtain more signatures before anything else could be done. This was agreed and delegates were sent from the Convention to different parts of the country to collect these signatures for several weeks.(Chase 2007) Therefore, the Convention was left in a state of uneasy flux from the end of February through to the middle of March, with the primary focus of the Convention centred on the collection of signatures, rather than developing a strategy to take the movement forward.
By the second week of March, the physical-force Chartists were demanding that firm decisions be made about the actions the movement should take. This was the recognition that it was necessary to prepare to meet the likely oppressive acts of the government with organised resistance. O’Connor most eloquently put the argument: “Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.” This debate forced to the surface of the division between the moral-force and the physical-force Chartists. As a result, some of the moderates went to the non-Chartist press to denounce ‘the extremists’, while others resigned from the Chartist movement, soon aligning themselves to the Liberal Party. In the meantime, the Convention broke up again, agreeing to adjourn without having made any clear decisions, so that delegates could return to their own areas over the Easter period.
After Easter the Convention met again, as the month rolled on towards May, tension within the Chartist movement was building, along with the preparations by the government to repress the movement. The government had already passed a law banning meetings. However, meetings were still taking place in defiance of this ruling. At a local level, magistrates were fearful of provoking a reaction and were cautious about making arrests. At the beginning of May, Lord Russell, then Home Secretary, reacted to this and the obvious prevarication of the Convention, and issued more stringent instructions to local magistrates. They should attempt to form anti-chartist ‘volunteer associations’ from the pro-government sections of the population. As a counterweight to Chartist forces, these gangs were to be armed as Special Constables. Equally, he suggested the magistrates should act upon the ruling banning meetings and start directly arresting Chartist speakers. On the 7th May the arrest of the first prominent Chartist leader Henry Vincent, took place.
The government actions and the arrest of Vincent shifted the mood within the Convention, which now agreed to relocate to Birmingham, where Chartist forces were stronger and the government weaker. This change was important in shifting the perception of the Convention of its role. Whilst in London, the focus and intention of the Convention was geared towards its petition to Parliament; moving the Convention to an alternative city, in one of the heartlands of Chartism, promoted the idea of an alternative seat of government.
In the final weeks in London, the Convention had also begun to draft a more general statement of its aims. It called this the Manifesto of the General Convention of the Industrial Classes. Its language was uncompromising in exposing the class nature of the emerging conflict.
“Countrymen and fellow-bondsmen! The fiat of our privileged oppressors has gone forth, that the millions must be kept in subjection! The mask of CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERTY is thrown for ever aside and the form of Despotism stands hideously before us: for let it be no longer disguised, THE GOVERNMENT OF ENGLAND IS A DESPOTISM AND HER INDUSTRIOUS MILLIONS SLAVES.”(Hovell 1925)
The Whitson Meetings
The next development within the Convention centred on a series of planned mass meetings over the Whitson holiday weekend. It was decided that the Convention adjourn so that delegates could return to their areas and judge the mood for the next stage of the campaign.
The answer given was clear. The support from these meetings were massive, the Manchester meeting on 25th May, was reported as having as many as 500,000; in Newcastle a meeting of around 100,000, with similar numbers in meetings of all the major industrial towns of Britain, and many more smaller meetings elsewhere.
Backing up these mass meetings there had also been a slow but steady preparation by workers for the coming conflict with the government. Unlike today, it was still lawful for any person to hold arms in Britain. This was much like the current American constitution, which gives US Citizens ‘the right to keep and bear arms’. This right was later removed by the British government through the 1903 Pistol and 1920 Firearms Acts, the latter quickly past during a period of working class militancy and radicalisation. But in 1838, the purchase of firearms was readily available, and workers up and down the country had begun to accumulate arms as part of their preparation to ensure that the demands of the Charter would be met.
The extent and range of the firearms accumulation is quiet staggering. For example the actual manufacturing of ‘caltrops’ (spiked iron balls to throw under the feet of charging cavalry), which were mass produced secretly at the Winlaton ironworks in Tyneside, or where caseloads of rifles were purchased in Sheffield by Staffordshire Chartists.(Chase 2007) In the south west, William Potts was amongst others who was later found by the authorities with an arms cache and who had displayed in his shop window bullets with the label ‘pills for the Tories’ – he was a chemist! (Challinor 1990)
Back at the Convention
The petition itself had now been ceremoniously handed to John Fielden MP on May 6th, at his house in London. But this event had not been organised as part of a mass demonstration as originally intended. It also meant that the petition had not been presented to Parliament. Rather, it was now sitting in Fielden’s front room waiting for him to present the petition to Parliament. The delay, and the manner of presenting the petition, had a damping effect on the movement. If the rejection of the petition was the sign for the next stage in the campaign, the timing had now passed out of the hands of the Convention; many of the delegates now seemed content merely to wait upon events.
Fielden, a radical liberal, then waited for a month after the Whitson mass meetings, before he finally presented the petition to Parliament on the 14th June. Although the petition now contained well over a million signatures and at that time was the largest ever presented to Parliament, when Fielden rolled out the document the Liberals and Tories greeted it with mocking laughter. But the delay in having a definitive rejection of the petition was not yet over. Parliamentary procedure required a formal proposal to debate the petition — and this was not done until a further five weeks had passed. Another radical liberal, Thomas Attwood MP, finally proposed it on 12th July. Only at this point — as expected — the petition was summarily defeated by 235 votes to 46.
More Delay and Prevarication
By the beginning of July, the Convention had been in session for five months. But for the past two months, as the petition had been languishing in the hands of the liberal MPs, during which time, one Chartist leaders after another had been arrested. This seriously depleted the movement’s national and local leadership. The government’s strategy was calculated to weaken the movement, by taking one a piece at a time, but to avoid making any large scale arrests, which would generated a mass response, and a likely general strike. Picking off the local leaders and Convention delegates one by one in different parts of the country, was proving a successful strategy. Although the sweep of those arrested was widespread, including the moderate William Lovell, the physical-force Chartists were the most prominent. This led to the Convention being both depleted with delegates and increasingly confused as to the direction which it should take, which was weakened further by the return of some delegates to their home towns who could no longer afford to be absent from their work any longer.
On the 16th July, this deteriorating situation prompted Robert Lowery, a delegate from Newcastle, to propose a resolution for a general strike to start on 12th August. After some debate the Convention was split amongst the remaining delegates, and the resolution was passed only on the casting vote of the chair.(Chase 2007) However, within a week, Bronterre O’Brien, a delegate who had hovered between militancy in words and moderation in action, moved a resolution to change the vote, requiring now that the delegates return to their areas and put the proposal of a general strike to mass meetings and only then return to Birmingham. After a heated debate, this resolution was then past.
This however, now left the Chartist movement in a state of confusion. The date of the 12th August still stood; and although it was only three weeks away, there was as yet no confirmed decision. This now awaited a report back from delegates of opinion at the mass meetings, but the picture presented to these meetings was only of the ‘possibility’ of a general strike. It was at this point, that Fergus O’Connor, who was strongly associated with the physical force Chartists, used his authority, through his popular paper, the Northern Star, and printed an editorial strongly arguing against the strike. This action, combined with the prevarication of the rest of the leadership, blunted the response.
It was now only one week before the 12th August when the Convention met again to discuss the whole issue. In spite of reports back from the areas of a positive response, the Convention changed the proposal yet again, moving to a compromise suggestion to accommodate both the physical and moral force Chartists. Areas were asked to decide individually on either a one, two or three days’ stoppage, with the expectation that different areas would do different things. Consequently, the response, almost predictably, was patchy, in some areas strong, in others workers did not want to waste their time on what seemed an empty gesture.
The cancellation of the sacred month and the fiasco of the one, two or three days, coupled with O’Connor’s opposition, ensured that the first period of a national Chartist movement whimpered to a close. Parliament had rejected the petition; the workers had armed themselves; they had drilled and prepared themselves for a conflict; the mass meetings at Whitson had shown the way forward; but over the long months, the leadership had failed to act. The leaders had wavered and lost faith in the ability of the working class to take action and were fearful of the government. This lack of determination and the prolonged sessions of the Convention blunted the national movement.
The highpoints and opportunities afforded in both the February and the Whitson mass meetings had passed by. The petition, originally intended as part of a mass demonstration, had been merely handed to a Liberal MP. The opportunity to create a national movement was splintered. The movement dissolved into a series of sporadic outbreaks of localised conflict between the authorities and Chartists. Responding spontaneously to one provocation or another, each isolated incident had no particular direction. Each demonstration, meeting or protest led nowhere; rather, they enabled the authorities to pick off the local and national leadership one by one. The result was that no focused or concerted effort was organised to bring the full power of the working class to win the Chartist demands.
The last session of the 1838-1839 Convention assembled in London on 2nd September 1839 and continued until 14th September with little or no direction. The mood was downbeat and fatalistic. The discussion points were largely reports on the various sentences being handed out to Chartists up and down the country, ranging from imprisonment from of few months to several years. (Chase 2007)
The Convention finally ended, with no clear or defined way forward. As the delegates dispersed back to their areas, the national movement of Chartism of 1838-1839 came to an end. But this was not the end of Chartism, or of the activity of the working class. A national movement of Chartism would rise up again building up to a major confrontation in 1842, including the 1842 General Strike. Some of the experience from 1838 to 1839 would be learnt and integrated into the renewed movement, but mistakes in strategy would also be repeated. And in 1848 there was again a further large scale upsurge.
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