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Attwood's speech on presenting the 1839 Charter to Parliament, 14 June 1839

Thomas Attwood was an MP for Birmingham and had led the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act. He made this speech when presenting the first Chartist petition to the House of Commons

Mr T. Attwood said, in rising to present this very extraordinary and important petition, he was aware that the rules of the House would not allow him to enter upon any general statement on the subject to which it referred, nor to go into a defence of the great principles which were there set forth. He should, therefore, endeavour to keep strictly within the rules prescribed by the House, as the proper line of conduct to be observed by Members on presenting petitions, and confine himself to a statement of the substance and contents; and then, perhaps, the House would indulge him by permitting him to say a few words - a few words only - in explanation of the circumstances as regarded his own personal position in connection with the petition. The petition originated in the town of Birmingham, it was adopted there at a very numerous meeting on the 6th of August, last year. Having been so adopted, it was then forwarded to Glasgow, where, in a short time it received no less a number than the signatures of 90,000 honest, industrious men; and it afterwards received the signatures of nearly the same number at Birmingham and the neighbourhood of that town. He held in his hand a list of two hundred and fourteen towns and villages, in different parts of Great Britain, where the petition had been deliberately adopted and signed; and it was now presented to that House with 1,280,000 signatures, the result of not less than 500 public meetings, which had been held in support of the principles contained in this petition. At each of those meetings there had been one universal anxious cry of distress - distress, he must say, long disregarded by that House, yet existing for years - distress which had caused much discontent amongst the working people, and which discontent was created by the long sufferings and grievances which that class of the people had endured, and so long utterly disregarded by the people's representatives in that House. [Order! Order!] He hoped the House would listen to what he said, and would afford due attention to a petition so universally signed; that the House would not say, because the petitioners were merely humble working men that their opinions should be disregarded, and that their grievances should not be considered and redressed. He sincerely trusted that such would not be the case. It would be a most serious grievance and offence to these people who signed the petition, if such were to be the result in the presence of their delegates, who had been allowed to be present to witness its presentation; and it would be most painful for him to have to state such a result, and to carry back a report to those who had intrusted [sic] the petition into his hands that it had been treated with any symptoms of disregard or disrespect by that House. The men who had signed the petition were honest and industrious - of sober and unblemished character - men who have uniformly discharged the duties of good members of society and loyal subjects, and who had always obeyed the laws. Gentlemen enjoying the wealth handed down to them by hereditary descent, whose wants were provided for by the estates to which they succeeded from their forefathers, could have no idea of the privations suffered by the working men of this country. Yet at all the meetings which have been held, the persons attending them had confined themselves strictly to the legal pursuit of their constitutional rights, for the purpose of remedying the extreme sufferings which they had endured for so many years. They had seen no attempt to relieve their sufferings, whether they were hand-loom weavers, artisans, or agricultural labourers - no matter what they might be, still there was no relief. They met with no support, or even sympathy, from that House, and, therefore, they felt themselves bound to exercise every legal and constitutional effort within their power to recover the whole of their constitutional rights. All that these honest men said was, that the Members of that House by birth, parentage, habits of life, wealth, and education, had not shown that anxiety to relieve the sufferings and redress the wrongs of the working classes, which they believed to be their rights, as enjoying the privileges of British subjects. Therefore, they had adopted the extreme course of entering upon that separate path, with the view of endeavouring to recover those ancient privileges which they believed to form the original and constitutional right of the Commons of England. For many years they had hoped and trusted that such an effort on their part would not be needed. They hoped it might be spared, and they placed their confidence in that hope to the protection which they looked for, and which they were taught to expect they should receive at the hands of the gentlemen of England. He should now read a brief extract from the petition. It stated, that they only sought a fair day's wages for a fair day's work; and that if they could not give them that, and food and clothing for their families, then they said they would put forward every means which the law allowed, to change the representation of that House; that they would use every effort to act upon the electors, and that by these means ultimately, reason thus working upon influence, they should produce such a change as would enable them to succeed in the accomplishment of their views and wishes. He trusted in God they would succeed, and obtain all the objects sought for I the petition. The first thing sought for by these honest men, every one of whom produced by his labour four times more to the country than they asked for in exchange, was a fair subsistence - and yet their country refused them one-fourth of the value of their labours. Not only did the country do that, but some of them had only three days' wages in the week, and hundreds of them were paying 400 per cent. increase on debts and taxes. Such being the case, the House would not be surprised, that these honest men should have used rather strong language under trying circumstances. The first clause of the petition was for universal suffrage; that representations should be co-equal with taxation - the ancient constitutional law of England. It said, that they had been bowed down to the earth for a series of years. That capital of the master must not be deprived of due reward - that the labourer must have a return in wags for his labour - and that the laws which made money dear, and labour cheap, must be abolished. The petition next demanded universal suffrage, in the language of their forefathers, as expressed in the celebrated Petition of Right. Then it showed that the constitution guaranteed freedom of election, and contended, that to secure freedom of election, vote by ballot was absolutely necessary, and therefore vote by ballot was a constitutional right. It further declared, that agreeably to the acts of settlement, Parliaments were ordered to be triennial, or more frequent; and therefore the petition asked for annual Parliaments. Then it declared, that Members should be paid for their attendance in Parliament, as was the case in the days of Andrew Marvel, and as he might now easily establish, if he though proper, in Birmingham. That was the ancient law. Members were paid by those who sent them to Parliament, and the petitioners were of opinion, until that right was restored, they should not have members who would properly feel and understand the wants, and read interests of the people. The fifth demand was, that the property qualification of Members should be abolished. In all these five points he most cordially agreed, and he most sincerely hoped that, by the progress of public opinion, the day might not be distant when the whole of those five points would be granted to the people; and that they would have them in full weight and measure, and no mistake about the matter.

Sir GH Smyth rose to order. The hon, Member had transgressed the rules of the House. It was a distinct rule of the House, that no Member should make a speech on presenting a petition, and he could not believe that any member, with that ridiculous piece of machinery (the immense petition had been rolled into the House), would be permitted to adopt a course that had been uniformly refused to himself and others.

The Speaker, as the hon. Member had appealed to him, must certainly say, that no Member had a right to speak at any length on presenting a petition. But when the House considered the circumstances of the case, and the position in which the hon. Member was placed, perhaps they would see that there were grounds for granting some indulgence in the matter.

Sir GH Smyth, as an individual, must enter his protest against the course adopted by the Hon. Member for Birmingham.

Mr Attwood was thankful for the indulgence extended to him, and would only trespass a few minutes longer upon the attention of the House. But he wished to say a few words in explanation of his own peculiar situation. Although he most cordially supported the petition, was ready to support every word contained in it, and was determined to use every means in his power in order to carry it out into a law, he must say, that many reports had gone abroad, in regard to arguments said to have been used in support of the petition on different occasions, which he distinctly disavowed. He never, in the whole course of his life, recommended any means, or inculcated any doctrine except peace, law, order, loyalty, and union, and always in good faith, not holding one face out of doors, and another in that House; but always in the same manner, and in the same feeling, fairly and openly doing all that he could as a man, a patriot, and a Christian, to work out the principles which he maintained, and to support the views of the petitioners. He washed his hands of any idea, of any appeal to physical force. He deprecated all such notions - he repudiated all talk of arms - he wished for no arms but the will of the people, legally, fairly, and constitutionally expressed - and if the people would only adopt his views, and respond to his voice - if they would sent up similar petitions from every parish in England, and go on using every argument which justice, reason, and wisdom dictate, they would create such an action in the public mind, which would again act upon Members of that House - that in giving due allowance for the prevalence of generous feeling among English gentlemen and the English people, if the people would act in that manner - if they proceeded wisely and discreetly, washing their hands of all insolence and violence - he was confident they would ultimately secure the attentive consideration of that House. Having said so much, he should now read the prayer of the petition, which was to the following effect::-

"That is might please their honourable House to take the petition into their most serious consideration, and to use their utmost endeavour to pass a law, granting to every man of lawful age, sound mind, and uncontaminated by crime, the right of voting for Members to serve in parliament; that they would cause a law also to be passed, giving the right to vote by ballot; that the duration of Parliaments might in no case be of greater duration than one year; that they would abolish all property qualifications, to entitle persons to sit in their honourable House; and that all Members elected to sit in Parliament, should be paid for their services."

He would trespass no longer on their time, but move, that the petition be now brought up. This produced loud laughter, from the gigantic dimensions of the petition. The hon. Member unrolled a sufficient portion of it to enable him to place one extremity of it on the clerk's table.

Petition to be printed.

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