Professor MALCOLM CHASE asks



and Why did they bother petitioning?



These are vital questions which Professor Chase raised during his recent research on behalf of the Social Science History Association.


At the outset of this Project, he undertook a close textual reading of the preambles of the three National petitions for the Peoples Charter (1839, 1842 and 1848) - something that surprisingly had not been undertaken by previous historians of the Chartist movement.


Professor Chase rightly considers that past historians have been over fixated by the numbers of signatories. Importantly, he points out that scant attention has been given either to the language of these petitions or the way in which they shaped the ‘ways and means’ of the movement.


He also conducted an analysis of the wider uses of petitioning, observing that Chartism was about more than just the right to vote.


Professor Chase views Chartism as Britain’s civil rights movement and argues that petitioning was at the heart of the movement, because it enabled the Chartists to define who they were, and determine who constituted the ‘other’ that they implacably opposed.


Until he wrote his own magisterial volume Chartism: A New History (2007), the history of Chartism has usually been narrated around the decade of the three National Petitions organised by the movement. It is necessary to recognise that the importance of petitioning has a longer lineage than Chartism. It stretches back to ‘Peterloo’ and much earlier. The new direction taken by Chartism was the organising of a ‘National’ Petition that galvanised local action. About 1¼ million signatures were collected in 1839 and 3.3 million in 1842.


The decline of the movement has usually been attributed to the circumstances surrounding the 1848 petition, when the 6 million signatures claimed were challenged by the government and parliamentary officers. As for the period after 1848, Chartism’s historians were primarily concerned with how the State learned to manage the movement in general and petitioning in particular. That approach produced far too limited a view of the impact of Chartism on British politics.


In fact, Chartists were not surprised by the reaction that their petitions received at the hands of Parliamentarians. Rejection was the outcome they expected, confirming their own premise that Parliament acted exclusively in the selfish interests of its members and those able to vote for them. Rejection legitimised their extra-parliamentary agitation, enabling them to get around the legal restrictions that hampered such activity. Their contention that there was no law preventing them holding meetings to organise a petition, was never contested.


A further motive was that these petitions were intended to test Westminster opinion. Each of the three Chartist petitions was presented to a new parliament (following a general election).


What the movement’s strategy should be was a vexed question, argued over and never resolved. However, the need to petition was never contested by the movement’s followers. Petitioning, says Professor Chase ‘lay at the heart of the relationship between political contention, collective action and the notions of citizenship that Chartism sought to advance.’


Professor Chase maintains that petitioning constructed Chartism; it shaped the movement. He points out that ‘in every contributing locality canvassing was a major intervention in political life. The subscriptional community created by its petitions was “the people”, a term that clearly included not only men but also women and children.’ This definition is a very different one from that used by the opponents of Chartism and represents a profound departure in thinking about who are ‘the people’. The Charter may have demanded ‘votes for men’ but Chartism championed the rights of a much broader constituency than previous protest movements.


He concludes that ‘Petitioning shaped, articulated and mobilized the politics of a nascent working class, “banded together in one solemn and holy league” but excluded from economic and political power. These were canvassed petitions, not laid down to await the signatures of the already converted. Chartism stood on the cusp of a largely oral popular political culture and the predominantly written culture that emerged during the Victorian period. Canvassing signatures was therefore a multi-layered action, about much more than getting names on a page.’


GO TO White Rose Research Online for to download the PDF

Malcolm Chase 2018: What Did Chartism Petition For? Mass Petitions in the British Movement for Democracy. Social Science History. ISSN 0145-5


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