Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Charter

The Charter appears to be a very moderate document. However, on closer examination its moderation is deceptive. The first point demanded suffrage for all men over 21, a standard radical demand. Certainly conservative in character, there was no mention of women’s suffrage even though there were women active in the movement especially in the first phase. The second point dealt with the secret ballot maintaining that there was little point in giving all men the vote if their votes could then be bought or they could be intimidated into voting in a particular way. These two points stand together. The same applies to the third and fourth points: the abolition of the property qualification for MPs and the payment of MPs. The financial barriers to individuals standing for parliament were to be dismantled creating the circumstances in which working class candidates could become MPs. The fifth point sought to create single-member constituencies of roughly the same size ending two-member constituencies and the considerable variation in their sizes. These five points reflected a representative view of democracy by enabling the working class to vote for MPs and for members of the working class to become MPs. However, the call for annual parliaments was far more radical in character and reflected a different view of democracy, one based on active participation by the electorate and greater accountability of MPs to their constituencies. MPs would have been more like delegates, mandated by their electorate and directly accountable to them annually.

The specific demands of the Charter, whether they were five points, eight or nine or the famous six points, have been surprisingly neglected by historians[1]. Miles Taylor suggests[2] there were two reasons for this neglect. The Charter itself tends to be seen, even by historians sympathetic to the movement, as containing a rather unrealistic set of demands. It is thought to have served primarily as a rallying-cry: a simple, easily understood plea behind which a disparate army of followers up and down the country could unite. The actual content of the Charter mattered less than its symbolic function. Secondly, the Charter has been passed over by historians because superficially it appears to be a rather familiar document, one that contained radical reform demands dating back sixty years to the days of John Wilkes and Major John Cartwright. The points of the Charter are historically uninteresting because they were too impractical or too unoriginal.

In fact, the Charter and the three national petitions that followed were the outcome of a very specific critique of the workings of the House of Commons that developed in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act. Nearly all the points of the Charter were discussed inside and outside Parliament in the years between 1832 and the beginnings of Chartism in 1837. The Chartists developed the widespread view that the main problem with the reformed system of Parliament and the electoral system was that MPs were insufficiently responsive to their constituents. The result was that they passed unpopular legislation like the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The solution was to make MPs more accountable. To a significant degree the Charter was designed with this in mind. Chartists believed that MPs should be delegates not simply representatives and arguably the greatest threat posed by the movement in constitutional terms was not universal suffrage but the mandatory or delegate theory of representation.

Attacking influence and ‘old’ corruption: criticising the Crown

Historians have argued that Chartism developed within a radical tradition that stretched back to the 1760s and 1780s. However, Miles Taylor maintains that there was a considerable difference between the demands for parliamentary reform from which the Chartist claimed descent and the tradition of radical reform the Chartist invented to legitimise their own campaign.

The preoccupation of radical reformers from the 1760s through to the revival of the reform movement after 1815 was the influence of the Crown. The reform of the House of Commons was seen as the best antidote to the growth of monarchical and executive power associated with George III and several of his prime ministers especially Lord North, William Pitt and the Duke of Portland. After 1760, Parliament seems to have lost effective control over the affairs of the nation and the executive began to govern without consultation. Parliament fell into decline with infrequent elections, absenteeism from the Commons and corruption especially in the small nomination boroughs ensured a steady stream of pliant MPs or ‘placemen’ willing to do the bidding of the King’s ministers. Reformers pointed to the results of this: the war with America and the spread of imperial power in Asia, the extension of the civil list, the growth of the military during the French wars and the increasing levels of indirect taxation and the national debt to fund it all.

Parliamentary reform in this period aimed to rejuvenate Parliament and make the actions of ministers, and the king, accountable to the electorate. The original powers of Parliament especially its control over taxation and over the army would be restored as a result. This led reformers to concentrate on three reforms of Parliament: shortening the duration of Parliament, extending the suffrage to all adults liable for the militia and curbing the power of the nomination boroughs. It was the ending of corruption in the small boroughs that was the most important reform. Two remedies were suggested. First, reformers suggested increasing the electoral power of the counties and in some cases London since county electors were seen as more independent and immune to influence or bribery than their urban counterparts. Secondly, reformers looked to a residential suffrage to cure Parliament of corruption and end the influence of non-resident voters who owned property in constituencies but who lived elsewhere.

Although these earlier schemes were later incorporated into the Charter, the earlier reformers had a very different end in view to that of the Chartists. They were preoccupied with limited the influence of the Crown and extending the power of the legislature over the executive. An enhanced Commons was the solution not the problem.
By the 1830s the parliamentary reform agenda swung away from a critique of ‘old corruption’ and crown influence and instead honed in on the workings of the House of Commons. ‘Old corruption’ and criticism of the crown was becoming a thing of the past. Attitudes to the monarchy had changed and it enjoyed a new popularity. Although attitudes to Queen Victoria were to change in the 1840s, her accession in 1837 and coronation in 1838 were characterised by a grudging respect even in radical circles. There had also been a significant reduction in the ability of the crown to ‘influence’ government because of the economical reforms begun by William Pitt after 1783 and continued by Lord Liverpool’s government in the 1820s. This cut the cost of government in areas such as bureaucracy, colonial administration, the military establishment and the civil list though without making any real inroads into the overall burden of taxation. The aims of the earlier Whig reformers were largely achieved in the 1832 Reform Act with the reduction in nomination boroughs, the strengthening of the large urban areas and the counties at the expense of the smaller boroughs and establishing the principle of residence as the essential prerequisite of being able to vote.

Attacking the Reform Act: criticising the Commons

Although the Reform Act removed one problem – the non-resident voter – it created a new problem in an arbitrary and complicated registration system based on voter residence, reform of which was a central concern of reformers down to the Representation of the People Act 1918. Criticism of the registration system fell into two areas. First, the requirement that electors prove their qualification to vote with at least one year’s residence and the prompt payment of local rates was felt to be too great an obstacle to the simple right of exercising the vote. Secondly, the management of the new registration system gave considerable power to non-elected parochial officials who were now responsible for all aspects of the machinery of elections. The publication of the electoral register from the 1835 election onwards enabled party committees systematically to canvass names and addresses on the register but also to challenge and sometimes remove the names of their opponents’ supporters through the annual visits of the revising barristers who adjudicated on the content of the register.

Radical scrutiny of the constitution after 1832 focused on the activities of the reformed House of Commons. This criticism was especially found within Chartism. The reformed Parliament was roundly condemned by the Chartists for its ‘betrayal’ by agreeing to a series of unpopular measures: the limited nature of the 1833 Factory Act, the restrictions on press freedom that remained despite the reduction of stamp duty in August 1836, the arrest and transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 and above all the Poor Law Amendment Act passed the same year. All these issued fuelled the increase in support for Chartism during 1838. From the mid-1830s, radical critics attacked the reformed Parliament for not doing its work properly. MPs were criticised for not attending on vital votes and for betraying the pledges and promises that they had made to their constituents at the time of their election. In 1837, the newspaper, the Constitutional, compiled information on the voting behaviour of MPs and a black-list of those MPs who had broken their pledges.
There was also criticism of the way in which the reformed Parliament handled the increasing number of petitions being sent to Westminster. In 1832-33, the Commons introduced restrictions on the debating time that could be set aside for petitions. This enraged radicals who valued petitioning as the only legitimate means by which the voice of the non-elector could be heard. The Chartists associated the evils of the Whig legislation with the innovations and personnel of the reformed Parliament rather than with the ‘old corruption’. This represented an important shift in radical ideology. One of the first tasks of the LWMA was to set up a sub-committee to enquire into the state of the franchise. Many of its findings were contained in one of the LWMA’s first publications, The Rotten House of Commons, published in 1836. Over the next eighteen months, the LWMA critique of the electoral system gathered pace as Parliament continued to refuse further state. In June 1837, Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whigs in the Commons, indicated in a speech made at Stroud that there would be no further adjustments to the provisions of the Reform Act by the Whig government.

Slightly before, on 28th February 1837, the first step was taken when the LWMA held a public meeting at the Crown and Anchor public house to petition Parliament for what eventually emerged as the ‘six points’. A petition drawn up in February 1837 to demand the extension of the franchise drew the attention of radical MPs, among them: Sir William Molesworth, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Hindley, Sharman Crawford, Joseph Hume, and John Arthur Roebuck. Meetings of the two groups between 31st May and 7th June established only that most of the MPs were reluctant to press for universal suffrage, and the association turned increasingly to direct agitation among the workers publishing an account of these proceedings in its Address to Reformers on the Forthcoming Elections. Plans were put under way for a committee of twelve men to draw up a Bill that both MPs and the association could agree, but with O’Connell now fulminating against the trade unions and many of the MPs more interested in the cause of free trade. When Roebuck withdrew, it was Francis Place who did the drafting. The Charter that emerged was essentially the work of Lovett and Place though suggestions from the committee of twelve and from the LWMA led to revisions to the original document. Francis Place suggested improvements to the text, and Roebuck wrote a preamble. The whole was then read by the group of twelve and published as the ‘People’s Charter’[3]. This collaborative approach had its critics, O’Connor, O’Brien and Harney for example, yet they were all members of the LWMA.

From first to last, the Charter was an indictment of the new voting system introduced in 1832. Thirteen out of twenty-two pages of the Charter were devoted to proposed reforms in the registration of voters, the selection of election officials and the actual taking of votes. The famous six points were submerged within a more detailed and far-reaching scheme for overhauling and simplifying the machinery of elections that was barely six years old. In far so submerged were the six points that, when the Charter was republished in penny editions in 1842 and 1845, the six points dispersed as they were throughout the text, were printed in bold type.

What did the Charter demand?

The first demand was for universal suffrage of all sane males over 21 not convicted of a felony, including breaking electoral laws. Manhood suffrage was recommended, not on the grounds of natural rights but because it was ‘simpler’ and ‘cheaper…than the present expensive machinery’. Voters needed to prove three months residence for which they would receive an election ‘certificate’ and would be prosecuted for registering in more than one constituency.

The kingdom was to be divided into 300 equal electoral districts returning one MP.
Elections would be held every June at the completion of the parliamentary year that was to run from the third week in June until the first week in June the following year.

MPs were to receive an annual salary of £500 and at the end of every parliament details of their rate of attendance would be published.

Considerable detail was focused on the procedures to be followed at elections. The Charter called for the election by manhood suffrage of the returning and deputy returning officers and their duties in calling elections, arranging the nomination of candidates and taking the vote be secret ballot were spelled out in some detail.
Of especial importance were two reforms. First, the new procedure of nomination required any candidate to secure the signatures of 100 electors. There was to be no canvassing of electors and soliciting votes was to be made a criminal offence. Secondly, voting was to be by secret ballot.

Some of the demands made in the Charter were revised in later versions. The principal changes came in the 1842 edition that increased the penalties for electoral corruption and made provisions to ensure that election voting papers were distributed in workhouses. The most striking aspect of the Charter was not the call for universal suffrage but its extensive onslaught on the new voting system of 1832. These changes were far more revolutionary. Had they been enacted the size of the Commons would have been significantly reduced and the parliamentary calendar extended by six months. Scope for partisanship at election times would have been severely limited, as all canvassing of voters and party manipulation of the electoral register would have been illegal. MPs might have become more accountable and there certainly would have been greater transparency in parliamentary proceedings with the publication of attendance records and voting behaviour. The whole system would have been supported by the power of the courts rather than the Commons in regulating parliamentary and electoral behaviour. These were unprecedented demands and would have severely limited the management of elections by political parties. The Charter needs to be seen not as the last shot in the radical attack on ‘old Corruption’ but the opening shots in a long campaign to reduce electoral corruption and extend the franchise by reforming the registration system.

What is not in the Charter?

It is interesting to examine what is not in the Charter. There is no mention of the House of Lords despite the anti-aristocratic rhetoric inherited from earlier critiques of the constitution and the proposals for abolishing or radically reforming the Lords that came from Daniel O’Connell, Francis Place and J.A. Roebuck in the mid-1830s. There is no overt challenge to the Crown although some Chartists were republicans. There was no attempt to bring women back into the constitutions from which they had been excluded in 1832 though this theme was a matter of animated debate among some Chartists and certainly among historians subsequently. Anna Clark, for example, argues that this decision disabled the Chartists rhetorically since they failed to follow through the logic of their position that full citizenship including the vote was a ‘universal political right of every human being’. To exclude women made Chartist vulnerable to their political opponents who highlighted the logic and argued that Chartists would be bound by it with what were widely assumed to be absurd and dangerous consequences[4]. Chartism thus suffered the worst of both worlds on this issue failing to get the full credit for its democratic assumptions while being tarred by their opponents who assumed that being female or indeed not being master of a household was an automatic badge of irresponsibility and disqualification from the vote.


It is ironic that the Charter attempted to avoid giving hostages to fortune, pursued practical politics but at the level of the working of the system. Specific reforms and redress of grievances would follow from the changing composition and concerns of a reformed parliament. Its demands were in that sense limited and the focus on the reform of the House of Commons appeared to maintain the fixation of more than two generations of radical reformers. However, the Charter was much more than a restatement of traditional radical demands. It contained a simple critique of the nation’s ills, the lack of accountability in the reformed parliament and proposed to rid the Commons of absenteeism and the electoral system of fixers, partisan officials and the early Victorian equivalent of spin-doctors. It was these issues that dominated the pages of the document produced by the LWMA in 1838. The six points, notably the call for universal suffrage, were there but they were not paramount in the way that they were to become during the 1840s. The focus on the reform of the machinery of election reflects the more moderate stance of the LWMA and some of the MPs who help draw up the Charter, as well as the constitutionalist strategy preferred by some members of the Convention in 1839. These demands posed a major threat to the British state in the late 1830s and 1840s because they threatened to turn the idea of the constitution upside down and contested the Whigs’ claim that the 1832 Reform Act represented a natural evolution in accordance with past practice and present-day common sense. The Charter challenged early Victorian ideas about representative government and, had it been implement, would have resulted in more accountability of representatives to the electorate. When Parliament returned to the question of further parliamentary reform in the 1860s, the greatest fear of the governing classes was that a working class electorate would not return representatives but delegates elected solely to do the bidding of their constituents. The ideas of the Charter were alive, well and still seen as a threat nearly thirty years after they were first proposed.


[1] Miles Taylor ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in Owen Ashton, Robert Tyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 1-23 is an important examination of the issue.

[2] Miles Taylor ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in Owen Ashton, Robert Tyson and Stephen Roberts (eds.) The Chartist Legacy, Merlin, 1999, pages 1-2.

[3] The six MPs who signed the Charter (Daniel O’ Connell, John Arthur Roebuck, John Temple Leader, Charles Hindley, Thomas Perronet Thompson and William Sharman Crawford) were far from being the most radical MPs and their association with the movement was short-lived. The working class signatories (Henry Hetherington, John Cleave, James Watson, Richard Moore, Henry Vincent and William Lovett) were, with the exception of Vincent, middle-aged men, employers of labour and resident in London. For a prosographical analysis of forty-five of the parliamentary supporters of Chartism see D. Nichols ‘Friends of the People: Parliamentary supporters of popular radicalism 1832-1849’, Labour History Review, number 2 (Summer 1997), pages 127-146.

[4] Anna Clark ‘Gender, class and the constitution: franchise reform in England 1832-1928’, in James Vernon Re-reading the Constitution, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pages 230-253, especially page 235.

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