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The Government and the Chartists

Relations between the government and Chartism were of mutual hostility. Chartists denounced Whigs and Tories as 'tyrannical plundering' governments. Politicians of both parties saw Chartists as enemies of property and public order. In 1842, the Duke of Wellington announced of the Chartists that: 'Plunder is the object. Plunder likewise is the means'. Chartists had no political muscle and little education, and thus were powerless. Politically they were not dangerous. They were generally more conscious of the government than government was of them. The governments were firm but mostly fair and did not rush to turn out the troops. No martyrs were created, so there was no crusade. The police were much used, and also Napier was important. Government attitudes helped to defeat Chartism.

Lord Melbourne's ministry: 1835-1841

The Whigs were traditionally the party of 'liberty' and so were not anxious to set out on a repressive course of action against popular movements until absolutely necessary. Russell as Home Secretary was responsible for dealing with Chartism. He was devoted to the idea of liberty and wanted to allow freedom of discussion on political issues. Unfortunately, he was not sufficiently aware of the depth of working-class discontent. Anti-Poor Law agitation in the north was treated with great toleration - very much an example of advanced thinking for the time. On 18 September 1838 Russell said

So long as mere violence of language is employed without effect, it is better, I believe, not to add to the importance of these mob leaders by prosecutions

Russell intended to deal with developing Chartism as he had dealt with earlier agitations.

In the winter of 1838-39, Chartist activity peaked. Melbourne had taken charge, and he had a reputation for severity. Repressive measures led to more violence. Russell returned to office early in 1839 and decided that there was little danger of insurrection, so he adopted less severe tactics. He was criticised for being 'soft' on Chartism. His attitude stiffened in April 1839 as the Chartists began to arm and drill.

Sir Charles Napier was the commander of troops in the Northern District between 1839-41. In April 1839 Napier, who came from the West Country, was put in charge of 6,000 troops in the Northern District. He was a sympathiser with the Chartist cause. He pitied, rather than feared them and attributed much of the trouble to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act: in his Journal in 1839 he said:

An anonymous letter come, with a Chartist plan. Poor creatures, their threats of attack are miserable. With half a cartridge, and half a pike, with no money, no discipline, no skilful leaders, they would attack men with leaders, money and discipline, well-armed and having 60 rounds a man. Poor men! A republic! What good did a republic ever do? What good will it ever do?

Napier knew that the people were discontented because they were hungry, and made this plain in his reports. He blamed 'Tory injustice and Whig imbecility' for the problem - in private.

In May 1839 a Chartist meeting took place on Kersall Moor outside Manchester. Napier controlled operations against the northern Chartists and successfully executed government policy.

Sir Robert Peel's ministry: 1841-46

Sir James Graham was Home Secretary. Chartism had been reviving since 1840 and gathered strength in the bad winter of 1841-42. By Spring 1842 the depression had reached its worst point. As strikes and turn-outs spread (including the Plug Plots), so the violence grew.

Graham took a more serious view of threats of disorder than Russell had done in 1839. He still showed discretion and propriety in dealing with the disturbances. When it became clear that law and order was breaking down, Graham acted with great administrative efficiency - a feature of the new Conservative Party.

Lord John Russell's ministry: 1846-52

In 1848 Chartism was closely linked to Irish discontent. Ireland was in the grip of the Famine at the time Whig treatment of Chartism was little different to 1839 although there were genuine fears of revolution. Elaborate plans were made for keeping the peace at Kennington Common.

Did Chartism affect Government policies?

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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