Get access

Chartism from above: British elites and the interpretation of Chartism



Chartism existed to exert pressure on the parliamentary classes, yet the interaction between Chartism and its audience has rarely been closely examined. Studies of the political engagement with Chartism have usually focused on questions of policing and control, but such an emphasis was only possible if Chartism was first delegitimized as an authentic popular voice. This article explores the upper-class engagement with Chartism, arguing that it was interpreted not as a political movement but as a social pathology. Neither the charter nor its spokesmen were accepted as representative of the people, with observers instead projecting their own interpretations onto the movement. As a result, the Chartists were unable to force serious constitutional debate or to confront M.P.s with a compelling popular authority distinct from their own.