The working-class view of Chartism

Bronterre O'Brien, Operative, 17 March 1839: Universal suffrage means meat and drink and clothing, good hours, and good beds, and good substantial furniture for every man, woman and child who will do a fair day's work. Universal suffrage means a complete mastery, by all the people over all the laws and institutions in the country; and with that mastery the power of providing suitable employment for all, as well as of securing to all the full proceeds of their employment.

Feargus O'Connor, Northern Star, 1846: That Chartism which has fustian jackets, blistered hands and unshorn chins as its emblems, has been denounced by those who would make it a thing of refinement and respectability. while we repeat the fact to our readers Chartism means poverty - and poverty is a consequence of class legislation; the legitimate deduction from which is, that before poverty ceases class legislation must be destroyed.

B. Wilson, The Struggles of an Old Chartist (1887): The Chartists were called ugly names, the swinish multitude, unwashed and I never knew levelling advocated amongst the Chartists, neither in public or private, for they did not believe in it, nor have I known a case of plunder in the town, though thousands have marched through its streets to meetings in various places. What they wanted was a voice in making the laws they were called upon to obey; they believed that taxation without representation was tyranny, and ought to be resisted; they took a leading part in agitating in favour of the ten hours question; the repeal of the taxes on knowledge, education, co-operation, civil and religious liberty and the land question, for they were the true pioneers in all the great movements of their time.

Varied middle-class reactions

Harriet Martineau, History of England during the Thirty Years Peace (1849), ii, pp.262-: And what were those stirrings? What was it all about? The difficulty of understanding and telling a story is from its comprehending so vast a variety of things and persons. Those who have not looked into Chartism think that it one thing — a revolution. Some who talk as if they assumed to understand it, explain that Chartism is of two kinds — Physical Force Chartism and Moral Force Chartism — as if these were not merely an intimation of two ways of pursuing an object not yet described! Those who look deeper — who go out the moors by torchlight, who talk with a suffering brother under the hedge, or beside the loom, who listen to the groups outside the Union workhouse, or in the public house among the Durham coal-pits, will feel long bewildered as to what Chartism is, and will conclude at last that it is another name for popular discontent — a comprehensive general term under which are included all protests against social suffering.

Annual Register (1839), 1, p.304: Apart from the political demands of the Chartists, the movement is characterised by other noteworthy conceptions. The hostility of the Chartists is directed less against the privileged condition of society, which up to the present was the particular object of democratic indignation, than against capitalists in general. The movement is, in fact, an insurrection which is expressly directed against the middle classes. A change in the system of government is demanded by the Chartists not the purpose of receiving more power and privileges but — as far as their aim permits of any definition — for the purpose of producing a hitherto non-existent condition of society, in which wage labour and capital do not exist at all.

Archibald Alison, author of a book on associationist philosophy, "The Chartists and Universal Suffrage", Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine September 1839: The working-classes have now proved themselves unworthy of that extension of the Suffrage for which they contend; and that, whatever doubts might formerly have existed on the subject in the minds of well-meaning and enthusiastic, but simple and ill-informed men, it is now established beyond all doubt, that Universal Suffrage in reality means nothing else but universal pillage... What the working-classes understand by political power, is just the means of putting their hands in their neighbour's and that it was the belief that the Reform Bill would give them that power, which was the main cause of the enthusiasm in its favour, and the disgust of the failure of these hopes, the principal reason of the present clamour for an extension of the Suffrage.


Victorianism Overview Victorian History Chartism

Last modified April 1997