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A mass working class movement for universal male suffrage

The People’s Charter, 1838 by the Working Men’s Association, held by the British Library

The Chartists sought political and social reform in the UK during the mid-19th century, between 1838 and 1850. They took their name from the People’s Charter of 1838, which stated the six main aims of the movement as:

  1. Universal male suffrage
    A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. No property qualification to be a Member of Parliament
    Thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  3. Annual Parliaments
    The most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
  4. Equal representation
    Securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  5. Payment of MPs
    Enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
  6. Secret ballot
    To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.

Although Chartists called for male suffrage, many women were actively involved in the movement as writers, speakers, and members of Chartist organisations.

Poster for a public meeting in Carlisle, 1839 © National Archives HO 40/41/390
National Charter Association membership card from the collection of Mark Crail. Kennington Chartist Project. Licensed CC BY-NC 4.0 International

Chartism, Christianity, and secularism

During this period the Christian churches in Britain believed that Christians should not interfere with politics.

However many Christian Chartists saw Christianity as something that should be applied practically to life including politics. To further this idea some Christian Chartist Churches were formed.

The Chartists where especially harsh on the Church of England for unequal distribution of the state funds it received. This state of affairs led some Chartists to question the very idea of a state sponsored church, leading them to call for an absolute separation of Church and state: a secular state.

Facing severe prosecution in 1839 Chartists took to attending services at churches they held in contempt. This allowed them to display their large numbers and to make direct challenges. Often they would demand that preachers read from texts they believed supported their cause.

George Jacob Holyoake pictured in The Secular Chronicle, 1877

Associated figures

Prominent Chartists included a number of humanists, most notably:

The Reformers’ Memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery also lists the names of many freethinking Chartists.

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Chartism by David Avery for the British Library

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