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The reasons and arguments behind the Chartist demands (1841)

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.

The continuous intellectual history of Chartism goes back to the eighteenth century. The main ideas of the Charter were anticipated in Major Cartwright's plan of parliamentary reform in 1776 which in turn provided the basis for the programme of the working-class London Corresponding Society of 1791-8 of which Francis Place had been a member. All six points of the Charter are to be found in a nine-point programme issued by the Westminster reform committee of 1780; they are succinctly conveyed in the Benthamite formula of 'Secrecy, Universality, Equality and Annuality of Suffrage'. The Chartists were therefore merely repeating a political philosophy which had been made familiar by radical books, pamphlets and speeches for two generations. The dialogue printed below elucidates for a popular audience .

The Chartist Circular, 2 January 1841

To those who have but a partial knowledge of the political principles for which we contend, the following simple elucidation of the Charter merits an attentive perusal. it is extracted from an ably-conducted journal, that for many years past has been the principal organ of the Whigs in our sister kingdom (The Northern Whig, Belfast).…

The People's Charter! pray, what is that? It is the outline of an Act of Parliament, drawn up by a Committee of the London Working Men's Association, and six Members of Parliament; and embraces the six cardinal points of Radical Reform.

There are six, and they are named as follows: – Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, Vote by Ballot, Equal Rresentation Payment of Members, No Property Qualification.

No, we do not; it is often difficult to find a term which shall clearly express what you mean, and, perhaps, Universal Adult Male Suffrage would have been a more near approach to our meaning; but we mean by the term, that every man twenty-one years of age, unconvicted of crime, and of sound mind, should have a vote in the election of the Representatives who are to make the laws he is called upon to obey, and who lay on the taxes he is required to pay.

I do, for the following reasons: – First, because the possession of the franchise is the only difference between a freeman and the Russian serf, who is sold with the land and the cattle, as part of the farm stock; or the slave of South Carolina, where it is punishable to teach a slave to read: it is the only security against bad laws, and for good government, which otherwise depend on the caprice orfears of the masterclass, who make laws; an while the exclusive few have a profitable interest in bad laws, there will be no barrier to tyranny and corruption, but the fear of resistance on the part of the enslaved many.

Because we should be enabled, by this means, to get rid of a bad servant, at the end of one year, instead of being fixed with him for seven, as at present.

This is begging the question; we should not dismiss an honest and capable man, and the sooner a dishonest or incapable one is dismissed, the better. With respect to obtaining an acquaintance with the forms of Parliament, every man must, at his first entrance, be ignorant of the practice of the House: and the knowledge he would acquire, in the first year, would enhance his value, and, provided he was honest and capable, would ensure his re-election.

The prevention of bribery or intimidation at elections; or the influencing a man to vote against his own will or judgment.

I am not so bigoted an admirer of English customs as to refuse to adopt the regulations of other countries, where they are proved to be beneficial; besides, the practice is not so un-English as you seem to think; those very consistent and independent gentlemen who profess so much care for the morals of the electors, and such a horror of the Ballot, constantly make use of it for the protection of themselves, in the election of the members in their Clubs. With regard to the deception, it is admitted that the Ballot is merely a remedy for a disease; and, if it can be proved (which I believe it can, to demonstration) that the evil the Ballot will remove is so enormous, compared with any it can possibly inffict, the question will resolve itself into a balance of evils, and, of course, the lesser evil is preferable to the greater.

It means that the country should be divided into equal electoral districts (say 300) each containing, as near as conveniently may be, an equal number of inhabitants, and each district to send one Representative to Parliament.

It is, but not equal; for instance: – Harwich sends two Members to Parliament, and numbers 156 electors, while Westminster, with 13,268 electors, sends no more; so that, if it is right that Harwich should send two Members, Westminster should send 170. Nor is this a solitary instance. There are ten Boroughs sending twenty Members, the total amount of whose electors amount to 2,411, while ten other Boroughs also sending Members, number 86,072 electors; so, if it be right that the ten small Boroughs send twenty Members, the ten large Boroughs should send about 700!!

About one to seven and a half; the total number of registered electors being 838,519; and the number of males above 21 years is 6,023,752.

I doubt much whether it would save money. If I give a servant no wages, and he paid for his place, as servants in hotels and Members of Parliament do at present, I should suppose he expected to make more by it than he could fairly ask as wages.

You have no good grounds to think so. Does any one consider the great Officers of State, the judges, &c. &c. degraded by receiving the salaries they do? If a man devotes his time and talents, he is fairly entitled to remuneration; and it is proposed by the Charter to give each Member £500 per annum. Besides, there is nothing new in this: Members of Parliament used to receive wages. There is an account, in an ancient chronicle, of a Member of Parliament, who was also Recorder of the Borough, who agreed, upon condition of being re-elected, to forego his wages. We may imagine, like the Modern Members, he discovered there were pickings in Parliament, which would enable him to work for nothing, and pay for his place.

We mean that the choice of the electors shall be the only qualification necessary.

I doubt whether a man without a shilling would be elected; but the present property qualification is a farce; if a man has money or interest enough to get into Parliament, he can purcbase a sham qualification for £100. But why should not a poor man, if he has ability sufficient, and a majority of the electors have confidence in him, be elected? If none but rich men are sent to Parliament, the feelings of the poor cannot be fairly represented. In Norway, the peasant farmer, in his grey homespun doublet, sits, in the House of Deputies, beside the noble; and there the laws are just and equal, while here, because the law-makers are the few, the laws are unequal and oppressive.

That is a base and slanderous calumny, which those who profit by things as they are, have forged, to damage our cause. There never was the slightest foundation for such a charge, although judges on the bench, and parsons on the pulpit, have not scrupled to give currency to the falsehood.

The repeal of bad laws, and the making of good laws in their stead; a reduction of taxation, by which the productive industry of the nation would be increased; the abolition of the enormous abuses of the civil and criminal law, which amount, in most cases, to an utter denial of justice to the poor; a large and liberal system of National Education, without reference to creed, which would tend at once to diminish crime, by striking at its root; the cost of the civil and criminal justice, in this country, is above two millions, while only £30,000 is devoted to National Education. Would it not be far better to diminish the former amount by increasing the latter?

Yes, certainly; more than I can now enumerate: there is the expense of the State, the civil list, as it is called, amounting to about £1,000,000 sterling, while the United States civil list is not £20,000: I think we might be as well, or better governed for less money, by half, than we pay at present.

That is a mistaken notion; if the money were left in the pockets of the people, they would spend it in comforts for themselves, and thereby make as good for trade as if it was spent in luxury, by idle and useless placemen.

Mr Doubtful – Well, your objects seem more reasonable than I expected, so I wish you success. Good morning to you.

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