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The parliamentary debate on the 1842 Chartist Petition

Thomas Slingsby Duncombe presented the petition on 2 May 1842 and the debate took place on 5 May. Duncombe believed that the Chartists should be heard. He said that there were precedents in the Eighteenth Century, and hearing them would probably prevent violence. He said, "These Chartists, in fact, are only the Radicals of former days", which was partly true. Duncombe said that parliament could only expect people to appear at Westminster to try to redress their grievances, since parliament had done nothing to help them except talk.

Never were the people as determined as at the present moment by every constitutional means to obtain the franchise ... When they see their interests disregarded, and their feelings insulted, and when they have no hope of better times or better treatment, unless they work out their own redress - when you offer them more words, and endeavour to stop their cravings by the delusive promises of a Queen's speech - when you tell them that 'you feel extremely for the distress of the manufacturing districts, which they have borne with exemplary patience and fortitude' but offer them no remedy beyond your compassion - what can you expect but that they should make their way to this house, and, as you will do nothing for them, endeavour to do something for themselves? ...

Fielden, the factory owner of Todmorden, sympathised with the Chartists. He said

By the bad legislation in that House, all the people had been made politicians, and they had got an impression on their minds that nothing but a Radical change in the constitution of that House would ever give the people what they had a right to.

Sir John Easthope said that

... The petition came from those who were suffering distress, and who displayed that discontent which was the natural concomitant of distress ... His sincere conviction was, that if they sought to aggravate the grievous distress which now existed, they could not be more successful than they would be if they obtained a grant of all the prayers in their petition.

Thomas Babington Macaulay objected to hearing the Chartists.

Dr. Bowring demonstrated a changing attitude in parliament towards public opinion - the start of modern England. He thought that pressure groups should be recognised because internal laissez-faire was breaking down.

A government founded on a wide representation was, after all, nothing but the recognition that government represented public opinion, and the most enduring government must be that which had the greatest mass of public opinion to support it

Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, accepted the principles of the petition and agreed that distress was a real problem. He did not think that Chartism was the answer. To hear the petitioners would raise false hopes. He felt that the solution rested in sound economic policies (i.e. free trade), not in constitutional reforms.

It was not a question of fact to be investigated, it was a question of policy to be adopted.

Lord John Russell, the Whig leader, thought that hearing the petition was undesirable and not in the national interest. He expressed his 'abhorrence of the doctrine set forth in the petition'. He believed that if the present working class was enfranchised then violent Chartists would be elected and the threat to property 'was obvious'. He also saw a potential threat to the stability of government if the moderates lost control of parliament.

Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative Prime Minister, was against the Charter and opposed hearing the Chartists, for reasons similar to Graham's. Peel based his attack on the belief in further socio-economic reform as the solution to the problem of distress.

The debate took less than an hour.

Voting: 49 for; 287 against. It was defeated by a majority of 238.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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