Write an essay responding to the following:
Which is more important in explaining the public support for Chartism:
economic circumstances, or Chartism’s cultural community?
Chartism was the first mass working class labour movement in the world. Beginning in 1838, Chartists called for political reform in the United Kingdom. The nature of their proposed reforms were laid out in the six point People’s Charter of 1838, and it is from this, that Chartism took its name. The Chartist movement is seen by historians as a continuation of the fight against corruption in British politics, and as a new phase in demands for democracy in the world’s first industrialised society. The sheer extent of support which Chartism achieved is probably best demonstrated by the scale of the National Petition of 1842. The petition was presented to Parliament on 2nd May of that year, and had been signed by 3,317,752 people. The census of 1831 had recorded the combined population of England, Scotland and Wales at 18,534,332. Even though such a large proportion of the population had signed this petition, it was rejected by Parliament. It is probably over-simplifying the subject, in trying to choose either economic hardship, or the cultural community which developed within the Chartist movement, in attempting to explain the public support it enjoyed. For the movement to garner such an immense following amongst the working classes, economic hardship led to the birth of Chartism, and in turn, the sense of unity experienced by the disenfranchised poor, developed from this, making the Chartist movement a national campaign.
In promoting economic hardship as the main factor for the popularity of Chartism, historians comment that support for the Chartist movement reached its height in the years 1839, 1842 and 1848, when downturns in the British economy led to suffering and poverty within the working classes. It was in these years the Chartists organised three mass petitions. When, on each occasion these were rejected by Parliament, social tension rose, and strikes and violent protest followed. O’Day et al. (2011, p. 118 -119) observes: “Plainly, economic conditions impacted on Chartism. But what was it in the Chartists’ message that spoke to people in economic distress? Broadly, there was the hope that, if the political system was democratised, governments would be more responsive to the economic sufferings of the people – taxes would be reduced, and hated measures such as the new Poor Law of 1834 would be abandoned. The Chartists also talked of exploitative bosses, poor work conditions, wage-cutting, unemployment and poverty – all matters that industrial communities could relate to.”
During periods of relative prosperity, support for the movement tended to fade. In 1836, Thomas Attwood, a prominent member of the Chartist movement in its early days, commented: “Mr. Cobbett used to say, ‘I defy you to agitate a fellow with a full stomach’. Nothing is more true. Men do not generally act from abstract principles, but from deep and unrewarded wrongs, injuries and sufferings.” (Briggs, 1959). There is no doubt that economic issues provide a significant explanation for the popularity of Chartism, but, it surely cannot be the only factor. The People’s Charter demanded political reform, which was adopted by the movement as a whole, and Chartism drew together disparate local radical groups, and formed into an organised, nationwide working class protest group.
Communications in the late 1830’s and throughout the 1840’s developed in a way and at a pace, which surely aided the Chartist movement. At this time the rail network was developing from a series of localised rail lines into a national rail network, and in 1840, the first postage stamp, the Penny Black was introduced, this meant that mail could be posted any time of the day, through Post Boxes, covering the whole of the British Isles. Before these, mail had to be...