Thomas Attwood, MP for Birmingham, and the leader of the Birmingham Political Union that had originated the petition in 1838, introduced it to Parliament on 14 June 1839. It carried 1,280,958 signatures and was almost three miles in length. The text here is taken from William Lovett’s biography, The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom.
This is one of a number of articles dealing with the First Chartist Petition. See also:
Organising the first Chartist petition – 1839
Full text of the petition – 1839
Presenting the First Chartist petition – 1839
Chartist Convention – 1839
Document: Petition for the People’s Charter
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 of with the materials of commerce and trade; it has numerous and convenient harbours; in facility of internal communication it exceeds all others.
For three-and-twenty years we have enjoyed a profound peace.
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, makes 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 of freemen.
WE DEMAND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE.
The suffrage to be exempt from the corruption of the wealthy, and the violence of the powerful, must be kept secret.
The assertion of our right necessarily involves the power 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 are essential.
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 evil 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 elections 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 of our sorrowful experience – short glimmerings of uncertain enjoyment swallowed up by long and dark seasons of suffering.
If the self-government 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 prosperity.
PRAYER OF THE PETITION
That it might please their honourable House to take the petition into their most serious consideration, and to use their utmost endeavour to pass a law, granting to every man of lawful age, sound mind, and uncontaminated by crime, the right of voting for Members to serve in Parliament; that they would cause a law also to be passed, giving the right to vote by the ballot; that the duration of Parliaments might in no case be of greater duration than one year; that they would abolish all property qualifications, to entitle parties to sit in their honourable House; and that all Members elected to sit in Parliament, should be paid for their services.
From The Life and Struggles of William Lovett in his Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge and Freedom by William Lovett (London, Trübner & Co., 1876).