As we have already seen, some of the principal points of the Charter were predicted as an absolute necessity by O'Connell and others when the Reform Bill of 1831 came up for debate. Therefore the dreams as they were then called and believed to be of the Chartists, have already been half realised; and the other dreams, or most of them, seem to grow nearer to realisation with every succeeding year. Yet the Chartists of 1837 and the years that followed were undoubtedly regarded by steady-going people at the time as fanatical disturbers of society; men whose passion or whose craze was for the levelling of ranks and the redistribution of wealth; men with whom property was accounted robbery, and in whose eyes only the working man seemed to have any right even to existence. No doubt some of the Chartists were wild enthusiasts; some were half-crazy fanatics; some were idlers, and what would be called in the north country, wastrels - men who never did a day's hard work in their lives, and never wanted to go through any such process of labour. But the world has yet to hear of any great political agitation, even for the noblest public purpose, which is carried on exclusively by men of high education, by patriots and philosophers, and citizens with a respectable income earned or inherited. Among the Chartists were undoubtedly some men of great ability, eloquence, and high personal character; and the Chartist agitation produced at least one genuine poet, Ebenezer Elliott, who might have secured for his verses a more abiding place in literature if he had not devoted his poetic gifts to the inspiration of a movement which has long since done its work and become only a vague memory.
Charles Kingsley's "Alton Locke" is probably not much in demand among novel readers of this day; it would be well worth reading if only for the light it throws on a fading chapter of history. "Alton Locke " gives, on the whole, a very fair as well as a powerful picture of the different kinds of men who composed the Chartist agitation, most of whom, whatever may have been their visions or their mistakes, were at least sincere. The Chartist movement spread rapidly among the artisan classes. Thomas Cooper was, like Ebenezer Elliott, a man of poetic aspiration and likewise of much poetic inspiration; a man thoroughly devoted to his cause - an enthusiast indeed, but not a fanatic. Henry Vincent we can some of us still remember as a man of education and of ability, an eloquent and commanding speaker who, when the immediate occasion for the Chartist movement had passed away, maintained himself quietly and successfully as a popular lecturer at home and in the United States. Ernest Jones, too, is still well in the memory of many living men. Ernest Jones was a man of education and position who was held as an infant at the baptismal font by no less a person than a Royal Prince, and who deliberately sacrificed his chance of a rich inheritance by throwing in his lot with the Chartists and their agitation. The Charter had, indeed, among its leading supporters some men of less steady intellect and less orderly habits than those whom we have just mentioned. The present generation has almost forgotten the very name of the once famous or notorious Feargus O'Connor, about whom every newspaper published every day in these countries had at one time something to say in praise, in ridicule, or in denunciation. Feargus O'Connor was of good old Irish family, and used to boast, and with at all events somewhat better reason for the boast than Thackeray's Captain Costigan had, his descent from one of the Irish kings. He had been a man of fashion in London, a " buck " as it would have been called in those days, and had gone in for some showy dissipation. He was a man of colossal stature and almost gigantic strength, and was gifted with a voice hardly inferior in range and in music to that of O'Connell himself.
Many men who had no sympathies with his movement, or admiration for himself, have described him as the most powerful mob orator they had ever heard. He had sat in the House of Commons for an Irish borough, but had quarrelled with O'Connell, who set himself against all socialistic theories. He threw in his lot with the Radicals, and more especially the Chartists of England, and obtained a seat in Parliament for the City of Nottingham. Among the large number of Chartist newspapers which were started, the Northern Star, which belonged to O'Connor, and was conducted by him, was probably the most influential and popular. The Chartists held incessant meetings, at which a great deal of violent rhetoric relieved and inflamed the passions of men. They took to the holding of torchlight meetings at night, and some of these demonstrations spread wild alarm in many an otherwise quiet neighbourhood. There were, roughly speaking, three classes of Chartists : the regular political agitators who went in steadily for the six points of the Charter and for nothing more, and who hoped to compass their ends, as indeed most of them afterwards were compassed, by open and constitutional agitation; then there were what might be called the Socialist Chartists - the men who thought the whole condition of society was wrong, and. who wanted to turn it upside down in the hope that the general rearrangement of the order of things might bring everybody enough to eat; finally, there were the men who were driven into Chartism by vague discontent, and by suffering that was not vague but very real and intense, and who attached themselves to Chartism because it promised to get rid of the bread tax, as it was called, and allured them with the hope of a fair day's wages for a fair day's work - not to speak of the considerable proportion whose yearning was for a fair day's wages without the day's work.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I8o6-l86l.