THE CHARTISTS: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution by Dorothy Thompson
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THE CHARTISTS: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution

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The Chartist movement, a surge of radical politics and popular protest that shook Great Britain in the 1840s, occupies a position in British history similar to the Populists' in the United States. Thompson (U. of Birmingham) doesn't aim at an inclusive narrative history of the movement, but at an interpretive profile. She takes up controversies about the class composition of the Chartists, the quality of their leadership, the issues that animated them, and other subjects--shedding light from copious archival sources along the way and illuminating the entire movement. She describes the high popular expectations of the 1832 Reform Act, which modestly extended the franchise, and the burst of activity after those expectations were shattered. Other important precipitating factors included the Reform parliament's failure to enact restrictions on child labor and working conditions generally, and passage of new coercive laws on Ireland (most of the British working class was Irish). Led by Feargus O'Connor, a skillful politician, in Thompson's view (an opportunist and a poor leader, to others), the Chartists put forward a People's Charter in 1838 that served as a national unifying focus. Thompson describes the emergence of a Chartist press, including O'Connor's journal Northern Star and its predecessor as the most popular radical journal, The Poor Man's Guardian edited by O'Connor's rival for leadership, Bronterre O'Brien. (In the past, O'Brien has gotten better treatment from historians than O'Connor; Thompson thinks this is at least partly because O'Brien was an intellectual by comparison.) From records of Chartists arrested for strikes, riots, or other acts, Thompson concludes that they were mostly workingmen, representing almost every craft and trade except rural labor. Independent tradesmen and professionals played a part, but mostly as communicators or in providing meeting-places. At the community level, opposition to factory-style manufacturing was a major concern of the Chartists. The Reform Act had enfranchised many of their employers, making the unfettered introduction of machinery also one of Parliament's interests; and the Chartists fought back however they could. After demonstrations, petitions, strikes, and insurrection failed, many Chartists became involved in self-help activities and contributed to the cooperative movement. Had the Chartists succeeded, Thompson says, their program ""could have meant less rapid centralisation, much more local autonomy in all fields, a slower rate of industrialisation and economic growth generally, probably no new imperialism, and a check on the size of economic units. Clearly a lower standard of life for many, a greater participation in government by all, and therefore probably slower, less efficient government."" That Thompson sees this sympathetically is one of the reasons she is able to make such sense out of Chartism. On a par with the best of the new social history, a contribution for historians and the public alike.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1984
Publisher: Pantheon