Chartism was in effect Britain's civil rights movement and petitioning was at its heart: it defined who the Chartists were as well as the "other" against which they were implacably opposed. Its history has been effectively narrated around its three national petitions (1839, 1842, and 1848), and its decline almost habitually and directly linked to circumstances surrounding the last of these. More than 3.3 million people signed the 1842 National Petition. Chartism's history after 1842 is partly one of how the State learned to manage the movement in general and petitioning in particular. The question posed by the title is deliberately ambiguous: What did the Chartists petition for and, equally, why did they bother? The first issue will be answered by a close reading of the three texts (surprisingly not undertaken by previous historians of the movement). The second will answered through an analysis of the wider uses of petitioning. The third issue addressed by this article is how petitioning constructed Chartism. In every contributing locality, canvassing was a major intervention in political life. The subscriptional community created by its petitions were "the people," a term that clearly included not only men but also women and children. This was a different and wider meaning of the term "the people" from that used by Chartism's opponents and it was a profound departure. Petitioning shaped, articulated, and mobilized the politics of a nascent working class, "banded together in one solemn and holy league" but excluded from economic and political power.


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pp. 531-551
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