Many of the signatures on the Chartist petitions were spurious, but the numbers that were genuine must be easily great enough to qualify the movement as the most widely-supported in history before the twentieth century. Yet it failed. Though five of its six points have now become law, this outcome had little to do with Chartism.
The effects that it did have were indirect, and for the most part unintended: encouraging the Government and the upper classes to promote public education, increase provision of churches, improve living and working conditions, and found county police forces.
In this case, with greater truth than of the agitation of 1830- 32, it can be said that the ‘Establishment’ decided to cure the social disease rather than concede the political demand. Only, after the failure of Chartism, further Parliamentary reform advocated by any of the leaders of the traditional parties.
A movement of such dimensions, however, is of enormous interest to the historian from all manner of points of view. Its essential precondition, or at least the precondition of its receiving mass support, was distress. Only during the economic crises of 1837-42 and 1847-48 were monster petitions procurable.
Unequal distribution of property was cited in the Charter as a root cause of the movement. But it is most significant that it was not direct remedies for distress or inequality that the Charter proposed. The fact was that the participants could not find adequate remedies, and in any case their social and economic grievances were so varied that they could not agree on a programme to meet them.
The one explicit proposal for social reform associated with a wing of the movement, the campaign for land nationalization or redistribution, remained a minority demand. Some few Chartists placed most stress on amendment of the Factory Act of 1833. A much larger group was strongest against the New Poor Law.
For some Chartism was another attempt to realize the Utopian socialist aims of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, a body which for a few months in 1834 claimed the support of a million working men and proposed by a General Strike to establish the reign of co-operation and virtue.
Only discontent with tile limited concessions of the First Reform Act united them all, and Parliamentary reform was the only generally acceptable remedy. The political programme was considered extreme, and was a reversion to Paine’s ideas. But the striking fact is that the programme was political, a fact which helps to illuminate the whole of nineteenth-century working-class history.
The race of the 1820s to harness economic discontent to political aims had been won. Further, for the great majority of the supporters of Chartism the movement was constitutionalist. The ‘physical force’ Chartists, advocates of rebellion or general strike, never attracted a large following. Even the Newport ‘rising’ was intended only as a mass demonstration.
Chartism’s relation with the Industrial Revolution is of great interest too. It was mostly a movement of people involved in trade and industry rather than agriculture, and it came near to embracing the whole of the urban working classes. Only an industrialized society could have produced it.
But it was patronized less keenly by factory workers than by the representatives of earlier stages of industrial development, handloom weavers and framework-knitters threatened by the advance of steam-power and large-scale production.
Though primarily a northern and midland movement, it was strong also in the West Country and East Anglia, where old industries were being driven out of existence by the competition of the North, and quite well-supported in London. For some it was a revolt against too little, for others against too much, industrialization.
Many reasons for its failure may be advanced. For the fact that it did not impose its programme by force the explanation is simple. Most of the participants did not wish to use force. The Government, especially when the Whigs were in power, was moderate and tactful in dealing with Chartists, by comparison with its attitude to the agricultural labourers who rebelled in the early thirties or with the repression of earlier decades.
But it was also firm in using the army and the police, and railways to transport them about. The Chartists, geographically divided, with inferior weapons and means of communication, would have had little hope even if they had intended a general rising. There was little sign of disaffection in the army.
In any case, Government apart, the concessions of the First Reform Act had done their work. The ‘Establishment’ was united against the threat of rebellion, and its power in most localities was too well-grounded to be overthrown.
As for the fact that the Chartists’ demands were not carried peacefully, the solidarity of the ‘Establishment’ and its control of Parliament accounted for it. The union of the working classes called forth a union of the middle classes. To nearly all those qualified to vote or to sit in Parliament, the Charter was absurd, the rhetoric of the Northern Star vulgar and irrelevant.
Constitutional reform was still conceived as a matter of balancing forces and powers. Further, where anything approaching democracy reigned, as in the government of London outside the City, corruption, parsimony and limited views seemed to dominate. The example of the United States in the age of Jackson did nothing to persuade the British upper classes in favour of democracy.
Many of the privileged displayed, great ignorance of the achievements of some of their social inferiors. There was preposterous snobbery and condescension, exaggerated fear of revolution. But at least the ‘Establishment’ of the forties showed real concern at the state of the poor, and took some action to improve it. This helped to reduce the appeal of Chartism after 1842.
Though Chartism failed in the sense that its programme was not at once enacted, and though its mass support disappeared after 1848, it did not vanish. A smaller, more explicitly socialist Chartism survived into the next period. But this had little importance at the time.