The Chartist movement collected three great petitions for reform of the voting system, to be handed into Parliament. The second was presented to Parliament in April 1842.
To some extent, the petitions represented the efforts of the ‘moral force’ wing of Chartism, the side of he movement that concentrated on lobbying, attempting to persuade the ruling elites that the working classes should be admitted to the party. Trouble was, the ruling classes responded with contempt and force. After the initial rebuffs of the first petition, elements among the Chartists who felt they could only achieve their aims by seizing power came briefly to the fore, But the insurrections and mass strikes planned and even launched in 1839-40 came to nothing or were easily defeated. Hundreds of leading Chartists were jailed and some transported.
In the early 1840s the moral force faction, through the National Charter Association, attempted again to divert the energies away from uprisings to putting pressure on Parliament with another petition. From across the country, the Chartists collected an impressive 3,317,752 signatures for the “National Petition of the Industrious Classes” – more than twice the number who had signed in 1839. And this from an adult population of just under 10 million people.
The final preparations for its petition to Parliament, by the radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, were made at a convention which gathered on 12 April 1842 at the same venue as its 1839 precedessor.
R. G. Gammage (in his History of the Chartist Movement, 1837-54) described the collecton of the signatures:
“Meanwhile the Executive were directing the attention of the country to the subject of another petition for the Charter, and they submitted a draft of the same for adoption. This second Petition did not, however, stop at the Charter; but, as well as stating a host of grievances, prayed for a repeat of the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland. Here again was a bone of contention. A portion of the Scottish Chartists were opposed to the introduction of any other subject into the Petition than the Charter, and a controversy on the subject took place between Dr. M’Douall and John Duncan, one of the best and ablest of the Scottish Chartists. The majority, however, went with the Executive, and the signing of the Petition proceeded very briskly. A Convention was appointed to sit in London for three weeks, for the purpose of superintending its presentation. It consisted of twenty-five members, whose names were as follows:–Abraham Duncan, E. Stallwood, James Leach, J. R. H. Bairstow, C. Doyle, W. P. Roberts, George White, Feargus O’Connor, N. Powell, R. Lowery, James Moir, S. Bartlett, William Beesley, J. M’Pherson, G. Harrison, P. M. M’Douall, Morgan Williams, R. K. Philp, Ruffy Ridley, W. Woodward , J. Mason, William Thomason, Lawrence Pitkeithly, J. Campbell, and J. Bronterre O’Brien. It will be seen that only six out of the twentyfive were members of the first Convention. This body met in London on the 12th of April, 1842, and received the signatures to the National Petition, which in the aggregate were stated to amount to thirty-three thousand.”
“The Petition was presented to the House of Commons by Mr. Duncombe on the 2nd of May, on which occasion there was a large procession, which left the Convention Room and proceeded through several of the principal thoroughfares to the House of Commons. The authorities had strictly ordered that no vehicles should pass along the thoroughfares, so as in any way to interfere with the procession, which order was rigidly enforced. The concourse of people assembled on the occasion was immense; many strangers being present from the country to witness the proceedings. Duncombe presented the Petition, which was wheeled into the House, and stated the purport of its prayer; he then gave notice of a motion that the petitioners be heard at the bar of the House, through their counsel or agents, in support of the allegations which the Petition contained. When Duncombe brought forward his motion there was the usual quantity of speaking. Macaulay was the great opponent of the motion. He stated that he had no objection to any one point of the Charter but universal suffrage, which he described as amounting to nothing short of the confiscation of the property of the rich. He uttered during his speech the most unfounded and abominable calumnies against the working class. Duncombe’s speech was noble and manly, and elicited the warm esteem of men of all parties; but no amount of good speaking was sufficient to draw forth a response from the House of Commons, and only fifty-one members, including tellers, were found to vote in favour of his motion. That House was too cowardly or too callously indifferent to the condition of the people, to consent to meet the veritable representatives of the suffering poor face to face, and listen to an exposure of their wrongs from those who were best qualified to make it. Duncombe declared that so much was he disgusted with the conduct of the House of Commons, that if the people ever got up another petition of the kind, he would not be a party to their degradation by presenting it…”
The rejection of the second petition effectively left the Chartist movement in the doldrums, nationally. However, it is a mistake to see the movement in that way, historically. While the grand spectacular moments of Chartism may have failed to achieve their stated aim, the value of the movement was the part it played in the building of a sense of class interest, in the cultural and social life that ran parallel and reinforced the political activity, the self-education and… The grassroots of Chartism was a vital stage in the evolution of a self-created class identity and awareness. These developments left long legacies in the working class, and particularly among the radicals, which outlasted the movement’s short history, and left hollow the mockery of the parliamentarians who met the Chartist petitions with derision.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online