Richard Brown was, until he retired, Head of History and Citizenship at Manshead School in Dunstable, and has published thirty print and Kindle books and 50 articles and papers on nineteenth century history. He is the author of a successful blog, The History Zone, which has a wide audience among pupils, students and researchers. He is also a Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association.
Before Chartism: Exclusion and Resistanceby Richard Brown
Chartism was the largest working-class political movement in modern British history. Its branches ranged from the Scottish Highlands to northern France and from Dublin to Colchester. Its meetings drew massive crowds: 300,000 at Kersal Moor and perhaps as many as half a million at Hartshead Moor in 1839. The National Petition in 1842 claimed 3.3 million signatures, a third of the adult population of Britain. This was a national mass movement of unprecedented scale and intensity that was more than simply a political campaign but the expression of a new and dynamic form of working-class culture. Across Britain, there were Chartist concerts, amateur dramatics and dances, Chartist schools and cooperatives and Chartist churches that assaulted the political hegemony of the wealthy, the conservative and the liberal. For over a decade, Chartists led a campaign for the franchise with a mass enthusiasm that has never been imitated.
Although political and economic conditions in the 1830s were necessary and important in explaining why Chartism emerged as an all-pervasive working-class radical movement, they are insufficient in themselves in providing an explanation. Chartism was not simply a reaction to the increasingly repressive policies of the Whig government, the exclusion of the working-classes from the franchise in 1832 or the burgeoning economic 'distress' in industrial Britain after 1837. Its explosion on to the political scene in 1837 was an expression of deep-seated and long-standing fissures in the social fabric that the Whig government had failed to address and had been exacerbated by policies that appeared, whether justified or not, to target the livelihoods, accepted forms of customary behaviour and political liberties of working people. The intensity of Chartist activity across the country reflected this exclusion from the levers of local, regional and national political power particularly when faced by the intransigent refusal of those with political power to countenance their inclusion on any terms.
Understanding why Chartism became central to working-class action and thinking in the late 1830s, 1840s and 1850 means extending discussion of its causes back into the late-eighteenth century. Change is something few people relish and this was even more the case during the revolutions that transformed Britain's agricultural and manufacturing economy. Working people may have been the engines of growth in productivity but it was the few--entrepreneurial, ambitious and enterprising--who provided the cerebral and practical motivation for innovation and change, challenged prevailing economic orthodoxies and who reaped the social and economic profits. They largely rejected the customary social framework that underpinned pre-industrial society replacing it with a vibrant individualism based on freeing markets from regulatory control and abdicating their responsibilities for those less fortunate than themselves.
Before Chartism: Exclusion and Resistance acts as a preamble to the four volumes in the Reconsidering Chartism series and seeks to summarise current thinking. The prologue examines the nature of economic networks in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The first chapter explores the ways in which society changed in the decades leading up to the beginnings of Chartism and confronts the central issue of how far society was a class-based. Chapter 2 considers the ways in which working people responded to economic change. Chapter 3 looks at the ways in which working- and middle-class radicals confronting the question of reform from the 1790s through to 1830. The importance of the radical press and the 'war of the unstamped' is explored in Chapter 4. The politics of inclusion and exclusion and the role of repression by the Whig governments in the 1830s is examined in Chapter 5 while the dilemma faced by radicals provides a short conclusion to the book.
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