Chartism Revisited

Eric Evans not only updates us on the latest research on Chartism but recommends how to avoid examination pitfalls.

Chartism has fascinated historians endlessly. Its name derives from the famous six points of the ‘People’s Charter’ issued in the Spring of 1838 which called for: the vote for all adult males; payment for Members of Parliament; equal electoral districts; the secret ballot; no property qualifications for MPs, and annual general elections. Chartism was, by some distance, the largest and most impressive protest movement of working people in the nineteenth century and it richly deserves detailed study. Regrettably, although it is a popular topic with many A-level students, essays on Chartism are, on the whole disappointing.

Examiners identify three main weaknesses. First, too many students are uncertain about the nature of Chartism and about the support it could command. This leads to excessive concentration on economic and social factors when students try to explain why it came about and too many vague assertions about the problems of ‘the poor’ in discussing the peaks and troughs of the movement. Second, there is widespread uncertainty about how the Chartists tried to achieve their objectives. Too many over-simple distinctions are drawn between ‘physical-force’ and ‘moral-force’ Chartists. This weakness is compounded in many essays by a lack of precise knowledge both about Chartist leaders (except for Feargus O’Connor – too often confused with the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’ Connell) and about Chartist organisation, which is far more impressive than is often allowed. Third, students too readily assume that Chartism was a complete failure. Examiners, it is true, sometimes connive in this by asking questions about ‘why Chartism failed’. It will be argued here that this is the wrong question. This article attempts to tackle each of these areas of weakness, while also bringing you up to date with some recent work on the subject.

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