Public Support for Chartism sample essay
Which is more important in explaining the public support for Chartism: economic circumstances, or the tradition of radical politics?
To explain the rise of the chartist political movement and the public support it received we need to consider the two main contributing factors at the time. Historians like Asa Briggs, W.W. Rostow and Gareth Steadman-Jones take differing views on which was the most important explanation for the dramatic rise in public support for the chartist movement. Briggs agreed with an economic based reason and Steadman-Jones agreed with the radical new policies that Chartism offered being the main reason for the growth in support for the movement. This essay will explore these two views and try to identify which is the most important.
There is evidence of early political reformers dating back to the 1740’s, all wanting universal male suffrage and many of them agreed with parts of the charter. But, due to the French revolution in 1789 and the ongoing war between France and Britain, political change was resisted in case any of these events were repeated. The war had left Britain facing harsh economic circumstances and deep political divides.
When Chartism was at its height economic issues were a major problem throughout the poor and working classes. These economic circumstances were a major factor in gaining support for the chartist movement. W.W. Rostow studied this connection to see whether this was a reoccurring theme. He gathered evidence to argue that economic problems caused tension in the lower and working classes. When economic pressures were low the tensions felt by the lower and working classes were low. This is shown in figure 17 graph of social tension 1790-1850 (Stevenson. J. (1978) Longman Atlas of Modern British History, London, Longman p.159).
Looking at the graph it shows well the peaks and troughs of the economic downturns fitted in with the protests for parliamentary reforms and the peaks of chartist activities. One such parliamentary reform was the national petition of 1842 ‘…..your petitioners can produce evidence of the gradual decline of wages, at the same time that the constant increase of national burdens……’ (Parliamentary debates (1842) third series, vol. 1xii, cols. 1376 – 1381). This statement shows that economic conditions were crucial to the public support of Chartism as so many of the working class were seen as poor and in poverty. The cost of living and food increased whilst wages stayed low causing poverty and in turn Ill health and starvation. Dorothy Thompson’s view of the support for Chartism was ‘…why the British workers responded to hunger by forming a nationwide movement around a political programme….’ (Thompson, 1971. P11-12). This view of Thompson’s clearly links together both the economic situation and the increase of radical political ideas suggesting that the economy might have been struggling at the time but the main support for Chartism was rooted in the deeper political issues that were effecting Britain at the time.
Gareth Steadman-Jones was in agreement with Dorothy Thompson as he saw Chartism’s support as a ‘political solution’ and saw Chartism as a continuation of radical political ideas from previous years. ‘…..a particular political vocabulary must convey a practicable hope of a general alternative…..’ (Steadman-Jones, 1983, p.96). The Chartists used a political vocabulary which was easier for the poorly educated and working class to interpret helping gain more attention and mass support across the country. The working classes were hearing solutions for their problems and liked the idea of change for the better. The general feel of the working class was expressed in the chartist newspaper the morning chronicle ‘we require justice before charity’. (Morning Chronicle may 3rd 1842). This was taken from a banner in the crowd of supporters. The speaker in the extract reflects the sentiment of the banner and the feeling of the crowd at the rally. This shows how political motivations were a major factor in the growth of Chartism and how the chartists used public feeling to garner support.
In conclusion to explain the growth and mass support for Chartism and the rise of the political movement which gripped the nation A mix of both economic problems combined with radical political ideas left a nation wanting change the Chartists used the economic situation to tailor support for their cause and increase the idea that political change would improve conditions for the working classes. Chartism would not have had the same effect without a combination of these 2 factors.
O’Day, R., Hardy, W., Marsh, G., Padley, S. And Perryman, L.A. (2011)
Making Sense Of The Arts, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Briggs, A. (ed.) (1959) Chartist Studies, London, Macmillan cited in Making Sense Of The Arts – Resource Booklet 1, (2011) Milton Keynes, The Open University, P36.
Stedman-Jones, G. (1983) cited in Making Sense Of The Arts – Resource Booklet 1, (2011) Milton Keynes, The Open University, P37.
Yeo, E. (1982) cited in Making Sense Of The Arts – Resource Booklet 1, (2011) Milton Keynes, The Open University, P38.
Thompson, D. (1984) cited in Making Sense Of The Arts – Resource Booklet 1, (2011) Milton Keynes, The Open University, P39.
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