Modern History Sourcebook:
The People's Petition, 1838
Chartism was an English working class radical movement centered
on a 'People's Charter" (1837) of six points. In 1838 a
national Petition was collected and submitted to Parliament.
Unto the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great
Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled, the Petition of the
undersigned, their suffering countrymen.
That we, your petitioners, dwell in a land whose merchants are
noted for enterprise, whose manufacturers are very skilful, and
whose workmen are proverbial for their industry.
The land itself is goodly, the soil rich, and the temperature
wholesome; it is abundantly furnished with the materials of commerce
and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility
of internal communication it exceeds all others.
For threeandtwenty years we have enjoyed a profound
Yet, with all these elements of national prosperity, and with
every disposition and capacity to take advantage of them, we find
ourselves overwhelmed with public and private suffering.
We are bowed down under a load of taxes; which, notwithstanding,
fall greatly short of the wants of our rulers; our traders are
trembling on the verge of bankruptcy; our workmen are starving;
capital brings no profit, and labour no remuneration; the home
of the artificer is desolate, and the warehouse of the pawnbroker
is full; the workhouse is crowded, and the manufactory is deserted.
We have looked on every side, we have searched diligently in order
to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued
We can discover none in nature, or in Providence.
Heaven has dealt graciously by the people; but the foolishness
of our rulers has made the goodness of God of none effect.
The energies of a mighty kingdom have been wasted in building
up the power of selfish and ignorant men, and its resources squandered
for their aggrandisement.
The good of a party has been advanced to the sacrifice of the
good of the nation; the few have governed for the interest of
the few, while the interest of the many has been neglected, or
insolently and tyrannously trampled upon.
It was the fond expectation of the people that a remedy for the
greater part, if not for the whole, of their grievances, would
be found in the Reform Act of 1832.
They were taught to regard that Act as a wise means to a worthy
end; as the machinery of an improved legislation, when the will
of the masses would be at length potential.
They have been bitterly and basely deceived.
The fruit which looked so fair to the eye has turned to dust and
ashes when gathered.
The Reform Act has effected a transfer of power from one domineering
faction to another, and left the people as helpless as before.
Our slavery has been exchanged for an apprenticeship to liberty,
which has aggravated the painful feeling of our social degradation,
by adding to it the sickening of still deferred hope.
We come before your Honourable House to tell you, with all humility,
that this state of things must not be permitted to continue; that
it cannot long continue without very seriously endangering the
stability of the throne and the peace of the kingdom; and that
if by God's help and all lawful and constitutional appliances,
an end can be put to it, we are fully resolved that it shall speedily
come to an end.
We tell your Honourable House that the capital of the master must
no longer be deprived of its due reward; that the laws which make
food dear, and those which by making money scarce, make labour
cheap, must be abolished; that taxation must be made to fall on
property, not on industry; that the good of the many, as it is
the only legitimate end, so must it be the sole study of the Government.
As a preliminary essential to these and other requisite changes;
as means by which alone the interests of the people can be effectually
vindicated and secured, we demand that those interests be confided
to the keeping of the people.
When the State calls for defenders, when it calls for money, no
consideration of poverty or ignorance can be pleaded in refusal
or delay of the call.
Required as we are, universally, to support and obey the laws,
nature and reason entitle us to demand, that in the making of
the laws, the universal voice shall be implicitly listened to.
We perform the duties of freemen; we must have the privileges
WE DEMAND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE.
The suffrage to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy,
and the violence of the powerful, must be secret.
The assertion of our right necessarily involves thepower
of its uncontrolled exercise.
WE DEMAND THE BALLOT.
The connection between the representatives and the people, to
be beneficial must be intimate.
The legislative and constituent powers, for correction and for
instruction, ought to be brought into frequent contact.
Errors, which are comparatively light when susceptible of a speedy
popular remedy, may produce the most disastrous effects when permitted
to grow inveterate through years of compulsory endurance.
To public safety as well as public confidence, frequent elections
WE DEMAND ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS.
With power to choose, and freedom in choosing, the range of our
choice must be unrestricted.
We are compelled, by the existing laws, to take for our representatives,
men who are incapable of appreciating our difficulties, or who
have little sympathy with them; merchants who have retired from
trade, and no longer feel its harassings; proprietors of land
who are alike ignorant of its evils and their cure; lawyers, by
whom the honours of the senate are sought after only as means
of obtaining notice in the courts.
The labours of a representative, who is sedulous in the discharge
of his duty, are numerous and burdensome.
It is neither just, nor reasonable, nor safe, that they should
continue to be gratuitously rendered.
We demand that in the future election of members of your Honourable
House, the approbation of the constituency shall be the sole qualification;
and that to every representative so chosen shall be assigned,
out of the public taxes, a fair and adequate remuneration for
the time which he is called upon to devote to the public service.
Finally, we would most earnestly impress on your Honourable House,
that this petition has not been dictated by any idle love of change;
that it springs out of no inconsiderate attachment to fanciful
theories; but that it is the result of much and long deliberation,
and of convictions, which the events of each succeeding year tend
more and more to strengthen.
The management of this mighty kingdom has hitherto been a subject
for contending factions to try their selfish experiments upon.
We have felt the consequences in our sorrowful experience-short
glimmerings of uncertain enjoyment swallowed up by long and dark
seasons of suffering.
If the selfgovernment of the people should not remove their
distresses, it will at least remove their repinings.
Universal suffrage will, and it alone can, bring true and lasting
peace to the nation; we firmly believe that it will also bring
May it therefore please your Honourable House to take this our
petition into your most serious consideration; and to use your
utmost endeavours, by all constitutional means, to have a law
passed, granting to every male of lawful age, sane mind, and unconvicted
of crime, the right of voting for members of Parliament; and directing
all future elections of members of Parliament to be in the way
of secret ballot; and ordaining that the duration of Parliaments
so chosen shall in no case exceed one year; and abolishing all
property qualifications in the members; and providing for their
due remuneration while in attendance on their Parliamentary duties.
From The Life and Struggles of William Lovett, (New York:
Knopf, 1920), pp. 478482.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997