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How did the Chartists try and achieve their aims?

Here you will find out about the aims, tactics and attempts by the Chartists to achieve their aims.

‘…where there were economical causes for national movements they led to tumult, but seldom to organisation’

Benjamin Disraeli, House of Commons, 12 July 1839

The Chartists believed that political equality was a ‘natural right’ and that the lives of the working classes would only improve once they had the vote. This view was embodied in the Six Points of The People’s Charter.

However this radical change to the Constitution could only be granted by Parliament.

Central to Chartist strategy was the use of the National Petition. The petition was a constitutional means of bringing the Charter before Parliament.

The millions of signatures it contained along with the thousands who attended the mass meetings would demonstrate the level of support that existed for reform. This would put pressure on Parliament to grant the Chartist’s demands.

Determined efforts were made to promote the National Petition and win people over to the Chartist cause. ‘Missionaries’ were sent on lecture tours, while the Chartist press publicised the movement to their working class readership.

Chartism soon became the first truly national movement for parliamentary reform.

The Chartists agreed on the Six Points of the Charter. However the leadership were divided over whether these should be achieved through moral means only or by the use of physical force tactics.

While there were instances of rebellious activity, such as at Newport in 1839, most Chartists sought to achieve their aims through legal and constitutional means.

‘Though hunger stamped each forehead spare,

And eyes were dim with factory glare,

Loud swelled the nation’s battle prayer

                                    Of—death to class monopoly!’

Ernest Jones, The Blackstone Edge Gathering (2 August 1846), published in the Northern Star 22 August 1846

From the very beginning ‘missionaries’ had been sent out by the London Working Men’s Association to establish local radical associations and promote the cause of political reform.

Henry Vincent was one of their most successful lecturers and was particularly popular in the coalfields of South Wales, where Chartism gained a strong hold.

In June 1838 Feargus O’Connor founded the Great Northern Union, an affiliation of radical associations from across the northern manufacturing towns.

O’Connor capitalised on the support for the anti-Poor Law campaign, promoting parliamentary reform as a solution to working class grievances.

By February 1839 the GNU had 62 000 members.

These local associations were an important aspect of the Chartist movement. Diverse local communities were brought together to unite behind a common objective, the campaign for The People’s Charter.

The local authorities were often unsympathetic towards the Chartists and refused to let them have the use of public buildings, so many of their meetings were held in beer shops or public houses.

Open air mass meetings were a key part of Chartist strategy, as they had been for the Birmingham Political Union during the 1832 Reform Bill campaign. They were an opportunity to promote the Charter and demonstrate the enormous public support that existed for political reform.

Local Chartist leaders would be joined on the hustings by visiting speakers from the national leadership, which would ensure a good turnout. Much like the radical reformer Henry Hunt, O’Connor was a great orator and he attracted audiences in their thousands.

An estimated 300 000 people attended the rally at Kersal Moor on the 24 September 1838. As well as spreading the Chartist message, these early meetings were used to collect signatures for the National Petition and elect delegates for the forthcoming Convention.

It wasn’t just men who attended the mass meetings. Sir Charles Napier the military commander in the North, estimated that a quarter of those at a rally on Kersal Moor in May 1839 were women and children.

These were great occasions. People would travel in from miles around in great processions dressed in their Sunday best and carrying flags and banners – much as they had at Peterloo in 1819.

From October 1838 torchlight meetings were held in the centre of the manufacturing towns. There were few incidences of criminal activity but the authorities were sufficiently alarmed by the spectacle to issue a Royal Proclamation banning these night time gatherings.

The Chartist press also played an important role in promoting and unifying the movement. There were many local Chartist papers and periodicals, such as Henry Vincent’s Western Vindicator which was distributed in South Wales and the west of England.

Others were associated with particular radical associations. The LWMA helped found The Charter, a weekly paper which was first published in January 1839. The Charter, like many of these titles, proved to be short lived. It ceased publication in March 1840.

The most popular Chartist newspaper was the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser. Founded in Leeds by O’Connor in November 1837, at its peak it sold 50 000 copies a week.

However its actual readership was much greater than this, as one paper would pass through several hands. Reading groups were set up where it would be read aloud and its contents discussed.

Its editorials and news columns covered Chartism at both the local and national level. O’Connor had his own column addressed to the ‘fustian jackets, blistered hands and unshorn chins’, but the paper also printed articles from those with differing points of view.

Poetry was frequently featured and was often submitted by the readers of the Northern Star. The work of Percy Shelley was a particular favourite of working class audiences, with his poem Queen Mab known as the ‘Chartist’s Bible’.

As well as bringing the Charter before Parliament the National Petitions publicised the Chartist movement. To O’Connor they ‘paraded Chartism in open day’.

Chartists also promoted their cause by attending election hustings, standing as candidates and taking part in the debates. Due to the limited suffrage the only Chartist MP to be elected was O’Connor, for Nottingham in 1847.

Chartists were involved in local politics. Here they were more successful due to the wider franchise.


‘Required as we are, universally, to support and obey the laws, nature and reason entitle us to demand, that in the making of the laws, the universal voice shall be implicitly listened to. We perform the duties of freemen; we must have the privileges of freemen’.

National Petition, 1839

The most famous strategy used by the Chartists was the National Petition. The right of the people to petition Parliament had a long tradition and it was a method that had been used during previous calls for parliamentary reform.

This however was to be a mass, national petition that would overwhelmingly demonstrate the popular demand for political reform.

The idea for the National Petition came from the Birmingham Political Union. Headed by the banker and MP Thomas Attwood, they had played a central role in the agitation for the 1832 Reform Act.

Attwood revived the BPU in May 1837 to campaign for further reforms and a year later, on the 14 May, the BPU published its National Petition.

A week later, at a mass meeting in Glasgow held in support of the imprisoned Glasgow Cotton Spinners, the LWMA accepted the principle of using the National Petition to bring The People’s Charter before Parliament.

The BPU agreed to the Six Points of the Charter and both were formally adopted at a rally in Birmingham on the 6 August 1838.

1839 National Petition

It was widely circulated that this was to be the final petition for reform and that Parliament had to make the Charter the law of the land.

The Petition was ready to be delivered to the House of Commons at the beginning of May 1839. However their plans were left in disarray after Lord Melbourne’s Government resigned on the 7 May, leading to the Bedchamber Crisis.

Instead the Petition was delivered to the London house of John Fielden, MP for Oldham. The Petition was finally presented to the Commons on the 14 June by Thomas Attwood. With over 1.2 million signatures it was the largest single petition ever to be presented to Parliament (at that time).

On the 12 July Attwood put forward a motion, seconded by Fielden that the whole House should go into Committee to consider the Petition.

Attwood gave a lacklustre speech which dwelt more on economic conditions and the distress of the industrious classes than the parliamentary reform and equal political rights the Chartists were demanding.

During the following debate Benjamin Disraeli, MP for Maidstone stated that although ‘he disapproved of the Charter, he sympathised with the Chartists’.

Disraeli also blamed the enfranchised middle classes for not performing their social responsibilities and protecting the people’s civil liberties, as the introduction of the New Poor Law demonstrated.

The motion was rejected 235 to 46 votes.

1842 National Petition

In 1840 there was a resurgence in Chartist support. The National Charter Association was founded on the 20 July and by the end of the following year they had begun organising a new petition.

On the 2 May 1842 a mass procession made its way to Parliament to deliver the second National Petition. It carried over 3.3 million signatures (approximately one third of the adult population) and was six miles long. It was so big that it would not fit through the doors to the Commons.

It was presented to the House by Thomas Duncombe the MP for Finsbury.

The following day Duncombe put forward a motion, seconded by the MP for Westminster John Leader, that the petitioners or their representatives be heard at the Bar of the House so ‘that those who are so severely suffering should explain to you the causes and the remedies for their grievances’.

T B Macaulay the Whig MP for Edinburgh made his position clear in the following debate. ‘I believe that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists… that it is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation’.

Duncombe’s motion was rejected 287 to 49 votes.

1848 National Petition

1847 saw an upsurge in support for Chartism. In early 1848 the Chartists decided to once again present their case to Parliament with a National Petition.

On the 10 April 1848 the Chartists held a rally at Kennington Common in London. The Government had taken extraordinary measures to police the meeting. In a deliberate show of force, they had called in the army and sworn in 85 000 special constables to aid the 4000 regular policemen.

The Government had banned the Chartist procession, which was to have taken the Petition to the Commons, based on an Act of Parliament from the time of King Charles II.

With the procession declared illegal Feargus O’Connor persuaded the crowd to disperse rather than risk a violent confrontation.

On the 13 April the Select Committee reported to the House that the Petition only contained 1 975 496 signatures, much less than the figure of 5.7million given by O’Connor.

They also reported that many of the names were fictitious. The Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria and Flat Nose were some of the names given. A number of the signatures were also in the same handwriting.

O’Connor disputed the figure given by the Committee. He told the House ‘that thirteen clerks could not have counted 1 900 000 signatures in seventeen hours’.

Even by the clerks estimates the Petition still contained nearly two million signatures.

The House derided the Petition and O’Connor abandoned the motion he was going to present.

‘Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’

Chartist slogan

In his History of the Chartist Movement, the contemporary Chartist historian R. G. Gammage described the division of the movement into moral force and physical force Chartism.

Moral force Chartists advocated the use of peaceful methods to promote the Charter and change public opinion in their favour. They believed that in time they would persuade the people of the reasonableness of their demands.

Whereas physical force Chartists believed that the threat of violence, or for a minority, actual violence would pressure the Government into meeting their demands.

After the failure of the 1839 Petition, divisions within the Chartist leadership came to a fore.

Different leaders favoured different approaches to achieving the Charter, which Gammage saw as the opposing strategies of moral and physical force. Chartists themselves also used these terms.

Many moral force Chartists saw the vote as a ‘natural right’ but they also emphasised the need for the education and self-improvement of the working classes.

This was less about proving to others that they were responsible enough to have the vote, although there was an element of that, but more about being morally and intellectually ready to exercise their political rights.

This can be seen in the ‘New Moves’, the different forms of Chartism which appeared after Parliament’s rejection of the first Petition.

Knowledge Chartism is most closely associated with William Lovett. He stressed the importance of moral, political and intellectual education in Chartism: A New Organisation of the People, co-written with John Collins while they were in Warwick Gaol.

In this they set out plans for an education system for children and adults, the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People.

Lovett saw the National Association as the most effective way of gaining The People’s Charter and to ‘realise all its advantages when obtained’, by educating the people to use their vote in the best interests of society.

It was not as successful as Lovett had hoped and only one National Association Hall was opened.

Teetotal Chartism emerged in the early 1840’s.The Temperance movement had been around for some time, but in 1840 there was a move to link Chartism with temperance.

Henry Vincent became a leading supporter of Teetotal Chartism. Vincent and four others issued an address urging Chartists to abstain from alcohol, stating ‘that the ignorance and the vices of the people are the chief impediments in the way of all political and social improvement’.

The campaign gained in popularity and several Chartist teetotal groups were founded. However the movement lasted less than a year.

Ernest Jones speaking in Manchester in 1850 said of teetotalism ‘The Charter don’t lie at the bottom of a glass of water’.

There was a strong link between Chartism and religion. Several Chartist Churches were established, particularly in Scotland where Christian Chartism developed in the early 1840’s.

Political sermons demonstrated that Chartism and democracy were consistent with the teachings of the Bible. Jesus Christ was frequently referred to as the ‘first Chartist’. The established Church was attacked for being corrupt and their opponents criticised for being unchristian.

Chartist George Binns told a meeting in Sunderland, ‘Eighteen hundred years ago the simple and sublime doctrine of equality was preached and taught and acted upon… now they saw nothing but unchristian selfishness’.

Feargus O’Connor strongly denounced these ‘New Moves’, believing they would divide the movement. He particularly attacked Lovett’s National Association which he saw as being in competition with the National Charter Association.

To Gammage, O’Connor represented physical force Chartism.

The physical force Chartists adopted a tactic which appeared to have been used with great success during the agitation for the 1832 Reform Act.

Encapsulated by the Chartist slogan ‘peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’ the threat of violence was used, particularly by the speakers at the monster meetings, as a means of intimidating the authorities.

The Chartist leadership did not actually want the people to rise up, but they did want those in power to think that it was a possibility if the Charter was not made the law of the land.

O’Connor often made use of menacing language during his speeches, making ambiguous threats if the Petition should be rejected. He told a meeting in Edinburgh that ‘if moral means fail in obtaining universal suffrage, get it or die in the attempt’.

Despite the violent rhetoric, the majority of Chartist meetings passed off peacefully.

O’Connor, like many Chartists, argued that they had the constitutional right to defend themselves if violence was used against them. He told a mass rally at Peep Green in 1839 that ‘I am quite ready to stand by the law…but should they employ force against us. I am repelling attack by attack’.

In reality the distinction between moral and physical force Chartists was not always so clear cut.

Gammage considered William Lovett to be a moral force Chartist, yet Lovett also believed the people had a right to defend themselves.

After his arrest in the wake of the Bull Ring Riots Lovett stated that ‘the people were justified in repelling such despotic and bloodthirsty power by any and every means at their disposal’.

The majority of Chartists, including O’Connor, did not want a revolution.

O’Connor realised the folly of an armed rebellion and most Chartists were committed to obtaining the Charter by legal means. The Newport Rising in November 1839 ended in failure and did not lead to a general uprising.

George Julian Harney, who was more militant than most Chartists, wrote to Frederick Engels ‘they applaud it at public meetings, but that is all. Notwithstanding all the talk in 1839 about ‘arming’, the people did not arm and they will not arm’.

‘…the only constituted authority representing the people of this country’

Feargus O’Connor, The Charter, 24 February 1839

The first meeting of The General Convention of the Industrious Classes was held on the 4 February 1839 at the British Hotel, Cockspur Street in London. Two days later it moved to Bolt Court in Fleet Street.

To stay within the law the delegates to the Convention had been elected at public meetings by a show of hands. There were fifty three delegates but the law limited the number who could meet at any one time to fifty.

Those elected were to represent the interests of their ‘constituencies’. The largest group, with twenty delegates, represented the industrial North. One of whom was Feargus O’Connor.

Many of those present at the Convention had been involved with the previous popular campaigns of the 1830’s and just under half of the delegates were from the working classes.

The Convention was initially set up to organise and oversee the presentation of the National Petition to Parliament. However to the Chartists it was also seen as a ‘People’s Parliament’.

It deliberately alluded to the National Convention which had been established in revolutionary France. Furthermore, the Convention was seen as more representative than the House of Commons. Its members had been elected by a show of hands at public meetings, in effect by universal suffrage.

According to a report in the Chartist the Convention carried on in a ‘business-like, quiet and respectable manner’. However divisions within the delegation soon appeared over what should be done if the Petition was rejected.

Most of the delegates agreed that in the event of rejection they needed to be prepared to use ‘ulterior measures’.

O’Connor argued that to make a strong impression on the Government they needed ‘to go with the petition in one hand and the ulterior measures in the other’. Although he also stated that these measures should be ‘within the law’.

James P. Cobbett, the son of William Cobbett, argued that the Convention should only be concerned with the presentation of the Petition to Parliament. He resigned as a delegate when his motion failed to carry.

The threat of ‘ulterior measures’ was not a new tactic. It had been used by the middle classes to put pressure on the authorities during the agitation for the 1832 Reform Bill.

A small minority of the delegation, which R G Gammage referred to as the ‘ultra physical force section’, tried to pressure the Convention into adopting more militant, revolutionary tactics.

Led by George Julian Harney of the London Democratic Association, their proposal to resist ‘every act of injustice and oppression’ received little support.

The increasingly violent language being used by some of the delegates saw the more moderate members, most notably the middle class delegates from the BPU, resign from the Convention.

The majority of Chartists branded them as ‘traitors’.

O’Connor wrote in the Northern Star that the middle classes had only given their support to universal suffrage on ‘the understanding that they should say “thus far shalt thou go and no further”’.

In May the Convention moved from London to Birmingham. It reconvened on the 13 May with thirty five delegates in attendance.

A list of ‘ulterior measures’ had been drawn up by the Convention’s Secretary William Lovett. These were submitted to the people at a number of mass meetings held during Whitsun week.

The measures included a run on the banks. This had been threatened during the 1832 Days of May crisis when the people had been urged to ‘go for gold’.

Also considered were the use of arms for self-defence, refusing to buy taxed goods and exclusive dealing, where anti-Chartist establishments would be boycotted. They also proposed a general strike, known as the ‘sacred month’.

The Convention reconvened in Birmingham on the 1 July. The debates continued over what should be done if the Petition failed.

After the Bull Ring Riots of the 4 July resolutions were passed deploring the actions of the London Police and the authorities. Copies were posted around the city leading to the arrests of Lovett and John Collins.

The Convention returned to London to witness Parliament’s rejection of the National Petition on the 12 July.

The delegates had voted for the sacred month but realising the people would not support a general strike, O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien overturned the decision.

The Convention broke up at the beginning of August and officially ended in September 1839.

The Convention had been the first attempt to organise and coordinate the Chartist movement. In July 1840 the National Charter Association was established. With a full-time Executive Council, the NCA gave Chartism a national leadership and a central organisation to oversee and direct the movement.