Democracy in Britain as elsewhere was resisted by those in power and the true founders were those who had no power, no vote and no say. Although barred from representation they were of course still taxed. The People's Charter was devised by one of the earliest working class organisations in the world which in a few years grew from a few hundred to a national organisation a thousand times larger - the Chartists. In 1842, at a time when only a tiny fraction of the people in Britain could vote, the Chartists collected over 3.3 million signatures on a petition supporting the principles of the People's Charter.
In June 1836, William Lovett (Cabinet Maker), Henry Hetherington (Printer), John Cleave (Printer) and James Watson (Printer) formed the London Working Men's Association (LWMA). Although it only ever had a few hundred members, the LWMA became a very influential organisation. At one meeting in 1838 the leaders of the LWMA drew up a Charter of political demands. When supporters of parliamentary reform held a convention the following year, Lovett was chosen as the leader of the group that were now known as the Chartists.
The Six Principles of The People's Charter
Universal Suffrage ; No Property Qualification ; Annual Parliaments
Equal Representation ; Payment of Members ; and Vote by Ballot
The Working Mens' Association to the Radical Reformers of Great Britain and Ireland
FELLOW COUNTRYMEN,–Having frequently stated our reasons for zealously espousing the great principles of reform, we have now endeavoured to set them forth practically. We need not reiterate the facts and unrefuted arguments which have so often been stated and urged in their support. Suffice it to say, that we hold it to be an axiom in politics, that self-government by representation is the only just foundation of political power–the only true basis of Constitutional Rights–the only legitimate parent of good laws:– and we hold it as an indubitable truth, that all government which is based on any other foundation, has a perpetual tendency to degenerate into anarchy or despotism, or to beget class and wealth idolatry on the one hand, poverty and misery on the other.
While, however, we contend for the principle of self-government, we admit that laws will only be just in proportion as the people are enlightened, on which, socially and politically, the happiness of all must depend ; but as self-interest, unaccompanied by virtue, seeks its own exclusive benefit, so will the exclusive and privileged classes of society ever seek to perpetuate their power, and to proscribe the enlightenment of the people. Hence we are induced to believe that the enlightenment of all will sooner emanate from the exercise of political power by all the people, than by their continuing to trust to the selfish government of the few.
A strong conviction of these truths, coupled, as that conviction is, with the belief that most of our political and social evils can be traced to corrupt and exclusive legislation–and that the remedy will be found in extending to the people at large, the exercise of those rights, now monopolized by a few, has induced us to make some exertions towards embodying our principles in the following Charter.
We are the more inclined to take some practicable step in favor of reform, from the frequent disappointments the cause has experienced. We have heard eloquent effusions in favor of political equality, from the hustings and the senate house, suddenly change into prudent reasonings on property privileges, at the winning smile of the minister. We have seen depicted, in glowing language, bright patriotic promises of the future, which have left impressions on us more lasting than the perfidy or apostacy of the writers. We have seen one zealous Reformer after another desert us, as his party was triumphant, or his interests served. We have perceived the tone of those whom we have held as champions of our cause, lowered to the accommodation of selfish electors, or restrained by the slavish fear of losing their seats. We have, therefore, resolved to test the sincerity of the remainder, by proposing that something shall be done in favor of those principles they profess to admire.
In June last, we called a general meeting of our members, and invited to attend that meeting all those members of parliament, who, by their speeches and writings, we were induced to believe were advocates of Universal Suffrage. Several did attend, and after some discussion, another meeting was proposed, at which several members of parliament pledged themselves by resolutions signed by their own hands, "that they would bring in and support a Bill for Universal Suffrage, Equal Representation, Short Parliaments, the Ballot, &c." They also passed another resolution at that meeting, appointing persons to draw up such Bill.
Many circumstances transpired to cause the great delay that took place, but the following outline of an Act of Parliament is the result of our exertions. As a Bill in detail, embracing all the legal technicalities required, would be very expensive in the printing, and but ill adapted for the general reader, the present outline has been preferred.
It has often been urged, that Universal Suffrage, as well as all the other essentials to the free exercise of that right, could not be reduced to practice. This is, therefor, an attempt to show the contrary ; and we think it would be practically found to be a simpler, cheaper, and better mode of securing to the whole people their elective rights, than the present expensive machinery, by which the rich and ambitious few are enabled to pauperize and enslave the industrious many.
Although this may be a new form of putting forward our claims, they are in themselves by no means new.
In former times, parliaments were only sessional, and the members received pay for their attendance. In the year 1780, the Duke of Richmond introduced a Bill into the House of Lords, for the purpose of establishing Annual Parliaments, and giving the right of voting to every man not contaminated by crime nor incapacitated for want of reason. Three years after this, in his celebrated letter to Colonel Sharman, he says, "The subject of parliamentary reform is that which, of all others, most deserves the attention of the public, as I conceive it would include every other advantage which a nation can wish; and I have no hesitation in saying, that from every consideration which I have been able to give to this great question, that for many years has occupied my mind, and from every day's experience to the present hour, I am more and more convinced that the RESTORING the right of voting to every man universally, who is not incapacitated by nature for want of reason, or by law for the commission of crimes, together with annual elections, is the only reform that can be effectual and permanent."
In 1780, the electors of Westminster, in public meeting, appointed a committee, out of which a sub-committee was appointed to take into consideration the election of members of parliament. Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whigs, and Thomas Brand Hollis, Esq., were the chairmen of these committees. In their report to the electors they recommended
1. Annual Parliaments.
2. Universal Suffrage.
3. Equal Voting Districts.
4. No Property Qualification,
5. Voting by Ballot.
6. Payment of Members.
The "Society of Friends of the People," was established in 1792, by Chas. Grey, Esq., (now Earl Grey,) the Hon. Thos. Erskiue, Mr. (afterwards Sir James) Mackintosh, several noblemen and members of the House of Commons. In 1795, they resolved to publish a Declaration, in which the right of voting should be so moderate that there should be no condition in life in which it might not be acquired by labour, by industry, or talent.
These are the doings of the Whigs of former times, persons whose speeches on every other subject our modern Whigs quote with ancestoral reverence, as texts from hoiy writ. Like every other irresponsible body, they have, however, degenerated. The only remedy for the evil, is to render Whig, Tory, and Radical legislators alike responsible to the people ; and to instruct the people in a knowledge of their rights and duties.
We could wish it to be engraven on the memory of every Reformer, "that the people must be free; in proportion as they Will it," not by foolishly lending them- selves to bigotry or party to become the instruments of the conceited, or selfishly ambitious, as they have too often done nor by violently overthrowing the empire of title, the folly of privilege, or the dominion of wealth for the experience of the past has clearly written for our guidance, that a change of men is not always a reformation in principle ; and when a knowledge of their rights and duties shall have taught the people that their own vices and ignorance are the chief instruments by which they are bowed to the dust, titles, privileges, and wealth will lose their potency to enslave them.
Fellow countrymen, the object we contemplated in the drawing up of this Bill was to cause the Radicals of the kingdom to form, if possible, a concentration of their principles in a practical form, upon which they could be brought to unite, and to which they might point, as a CHARTER they are determined to obtain.
Copies of this outline were forwarded to most of the Working Men's Associations and Radical Associations in the kingdom, and it has met with general approbation. It has been adopted at several large public meetings in different parts of the country, and, among others, at the great Birmingham meeting of the 6th of August, 1838, where upwards of 200,000 persons were present. We also received very valuable suggestions for its improvement from a great number of societies, and this revision is made (as far as our judgement deems it reasonable) to accord with the wishes of the majority. We still court suggestions for its improvement, our object being to make the details as perfect as theory will enable us to do, especially as we have the history of the Reform Bill, and all its anomalies, fresh in our remembrance to profit by.
The next Session of Parliament when the great NATIONAL PETITION is presented, individuals will be selected to introduce this CHARTER to the Legislature, and we anticipate that by that time a considerable number will be added to the members who are now pledged to support it. In the interim, we hope that electors and non-electors will continue to make it the pledge of their candidates; will seek to extend its circulation ; talk over its principles ; and resolve, that as public opinion forced the Whig Reform Bill, so in like manner shall this Bill eventually become the law of England.
In drawing it up we have found some difficulty in fixing the requisite qualifications of electors, because of many of the barbarous and unjust laws, which corrupt and selfish legislators have enacted. While, for instance, we agree with most reformers that felony should lead to the deprivation of political rights, we think the law which makes it felony for a boy to steal an apple, or to kill a wild animal which crosses his path, is as cruel as it is unjust. We also think that the present alien laws, which had their origin in the bigoted and prejudiced feelings of other days, should be so modified as to permit the right of citizenship to those, who for some definite period, have taken up their abode among us, and are willing to declare their allegiance as citizens ; and thus break down those barriers which kingcraft and priestcraft have erected to divide man from his brother man.
Among the suggestions we received for improving this Charter, is one for embracing women among the possession of the franchise. Against this reasonable proposition we have no just argument to adduce, but only to express our fears of entertaining it, lest the false estimate man entertains of this half of the human family may cause his ignorance and prejudice to be enlisted to retard the progress of his own freedom.
And, therefore, we deem it far better to lay down just principles, and look forward to the rational improvement of society, than to entertain propositions which may retard the measure we wish to promote.
In conclusion, we think that no unprejudiced man can reflect on the present unjust and exclusive state of the franchise, where property, however unjustly acquired, is possessed of rights, that knowledge the most extensive, and conduct the most exemplary, fail to attain can witness the demoralizing influence of wealth in the legislature the bribery, perjury, tumults, and disorders attendant on the present mode of elections but must admit that the object contemplated is worthy of the task we have imposed upon ourselves, however we may have fallen short in providing an efficient remedy.
We remain, fellow-countrymen, yours respectfully, the members of the Working Men's Association.
Signed by the Committee, on their behalf,
JOHN JAFFRAY, Bookbinder.
WILLIAM SAVAGE, Warehouseman.
HENRY MITCHELL, Turner.
JOHN SKELTON, Shoemaker.
DANIEL BINYON, Labourer.
RICHARD CAMERON, Bracemaker.
JAMES LAWRANCE, Painter.
WILLIAM MOORE, Carver.
ARTHUR DYSON, Compositor.
JOHN ROGERS, Tailor.
WILLIAM ISAACS, Typefounder.
JAMES JENKINSON, Engraver.
EDWARD THOMAS, Warehouseman.
HENRY HETHERINGTON, Treasurer
WILLIAM LOVETT, Secretary 6, Upper North Place, Gray's Inn Road.