Friday, 2 March 2012

Chartism's great class divide

There is now a page on Chartist Ancestors listing some 400 delegates to a joint conference of the National Charter Association and Complete Suffrage Union, held in December 1842.
This page has been on the site for some years, but lacked around 100 names. Happily, I have now been able to add them to the list, along with a profile of Joseph Sturge (pictured) and his Complete Suffrage Union. The delegates’ list also records their position on the key votes.
Chartism was always an uneasy alliance of different interests and organisations, so with the rejection of the first petition in 1839 and the authorities’ heavy-handed crackdown on the movement’s local and national leaders, it is no surprise that there were splits in the Chartist ranks.
The faction around Feargus O’Connor concluded as a result of that year’s events that there was a need for both a mass movement and a more centralised layer of organisation – and created the National Charter Association.
O’Connor dealt firmly with anything he saw as creating divisions, turning his ire on Church Chartism, Teetotal Chartism, so-called Knowledge Chartism and those who set up rival bodies to the NCA.
His appeal to middle class reformers was limited, however, and it was the Quaker and anti-slavery campaigner Joseph Sturge who filled the vacuum, establishing the Complete Suffrage Union in November 1841. This organisation, which committed itself early on to all six points of the Charter, would also provide a rallying point for opponents of O’Connor among the Chartists.
Following the rejection of the second Chartist petition in 1842, efforts were made to unite the NCA and CSU. These efforts foundered on questions of tactics and leadership (not to mention personality) but were brought to a head by the use of the word “Chartist”.
Sturge and the CSU believed the term to be too loaded violent associations to appeal to a middle class constituency; O’Connor and the NCA – backed by William Lovett and others who had no great love for O’Connor – were not prepared to budge.
The December 1842 conference called to try to unite the two factions ended with Sturge and his supporters walking out, and in the ascendancy of the NCA.
In due course, Sturge and his middle class reformers would turn their attentions to corn law repeal. For O’Connor, the rallying cry would be “the Charter and nothing less”.