One of the most remarkable political developments in the earlier part of the Queen's reign took shape in the Chartist organisation. It had its birth in Birmingham, where but a very few weeks after the accession of Queen Victoria, a great Radical meeting was held and a manifesto was adopted which afterwards became known as the Chartist Petition. The Chartist Petition got its title from Daniel O'Connell. " There is your charter," O'Connell said when he read the petition; " stick to that;" and the title caught on, as the phrase now goes, and those who supported the petition became known thenceforward as Chartists. For a long time the Chartist movement agitated the whole country. Once or twice during its progress it seemed to threaten an upheaval of existing institutions; once at least it led to something like an outbreak on a small scale, and lives were lost in its support and in its suppression. It was, really, a revival of the agitation which had taken place before the passing of the Great Reform Bill, a re-birth of the movement which led to Peterloo. The great Reform Bill went as far as, under existing conditions, it could be expected to go; but it did not go far enough to satisfy those classes in England who were most discontented, and who had the best cause for discontent. The Reform Bill left the whole mass of the wage-receiving class and of the agricultural population exactly as it found them; it gave votes to the middle class, and even to what might be called the lower middle class, but it left the great bulk of the male population wholly outside the pale of the Constitution. All that vast section of society were left as before, having nothing to do with the laws but to obey them. It seems strange now to understand how statesmen of the capacity of Lord John Russell, for example, could have thought that so large a proportion of the population could long be content to remain in such a condition. In truth the very passing of the Reform Act only tended to accentuate in the minds of such men the difference between their lot and that of the favoured minority. So long as political representation was kept as a luxury of the high-born and the wealthy, of the peer and the county squire, the artisans and peasants might possibly have gone on stolidly and patiently, without noticing the sharp line of distinction drawn between them and their betters, as the old familiar phrase would have put it. But when the shopkeepers in the cities and towns and the farmers in the counties became endowed with the right of representation and the power to give a vote in the choice of representatives, then it became impossible for the artisan and the peasant not to feel their exclusion bitterly, and to resent it and to rise against it,
Lord John Russell. 1792-1878.
The student of history has to make some allowance for the statesmen who carried the Great Reform Bill; to remember the immense difficulties they had in carrying even such a measure as that which they carried; and to bear in mind the fact that at that time the personal inclination of the Sovereign was still a factor of the utmost importance in settling the course of legislation. There must have been men in the ministry of Lord Grey - men like Lord John Russell, for example - who foresaw clearly enough that what they were doing could not amount to a permanent settlement of the political question, but who saw at the same time that just then it was out of their power to do any more. The Chartist agitation was confined, almost altogether, to the working classes in the cities and towns. The peasant in the counties was not stirred up till many years after to any keen sense of his political claims. Chartism, of course, like every other popular movement, had its inspiration in genuine grievance. Poverty and want of work were amongst its stimulants, and so, too, it may be frankly admitted, was a growing intelligence among the working classes. One of the idlest arguments that can be used by the satisfied men who have got, politically, all they want, is the argument that the power of voting at an election cannot help a man to higher wages or lead to a better distribution of the national wealth. The man excluded from the franchise remains as strongly as ever under the conviction that if he and his fellows had votes they could choose representatives who might find means by which to improve the arrangements of the social organisation. No doubt there was much that was vague, much that was chimerical, much that was sentimental and fantastic in the Chartist agitation; but at the same time there was much in it that must be called reasonable, and which proved itself to be practicable, seeing that it carried its success in the end.
The people's charter, as we study it now, does not seem like a manifesto which threatened to convulse the State. The Charter had six points, to use the phrase current at the time; the first point was manhood suffrage, or, as it was then called, universal suffrage, but which really only meant votes for all grown men, for the idea of woman suffrage had not yet dawned upon the mind of the British public. Thomas Carlyle was very angry with the phrase " manhood suffrage," and scornfully asked why the promoters of such a claim did not demand " doghood suffrage" as well ? The appeal would have been more effective if men and dogs had belonged to the same order of being, but as they did not the scoffing argument fell flat. Manhood suffrage is substantially the law of Great Britain and Ireland just now, and has been so for many years. There, then, is the first point of the Charter disposed of. Annual Parliaments was the second point; and we have not got far towards the realisation of that claim, although the tendency undoubtedly is towards some narrower limitation of the duration of Parliaments than we have at present, and certainly no man would be regarded as an Anarchist or a Nihilist or a pestilent disturber of society who contended in our time that the sitting of a Parliament should last for only one year. Vote by ballot was the third point of the formidable Charter; and we have had vote by ballot for these many years back, and the Throne and the Altar still seem safe enough. Abolition of the property qualification was the fourth demand; and the property qualification has long been abolished. Payment of members was the fifth claim; and it is perfectly certain that before long some Government will introduce - will have to introduce - a Bill to establish some system for the payment of elected members, such as is adopted by almost all other civilised States. Equal electoral districts was the sixth and last demand of the Charter. Now the system of equal electoral districts prevails, as to numbers at least, in the American Republic and in some of our own Colonies, and it does not seem to bring political or social destruction in its track. Therefore we find that three out of the six points of the Charter have already been established by English law, that the concession of a fourth is actually on the way, that a fifth is likely to be carried in some modified form, and that the sixth is still fairly open for reasonable discussion.