Why are early interpretations of Chartism unreliable?
The first historian of Chartism was Robert Gammage (1854), a self-educated man who had been Chartist. He portrayed Chartism as a political movement, but his book was biased because he hated Feargus O'Connor, whom he portrayed as violent and reckless.
What was the long-term significance of Chartism?
In the early 20th century, some historians portrayed the Chartists as forerunners of the Labour Party. They concentrated on the craftsmen-Chartists such as Lovett – calling them 'moral force' Chartists who used peaceful protest. These historians suggested that Chartism failed because of Feargus O'Connor and the 'physical force Chartists' who advocated the wrong tactics of violence and rebellion. By contrast, in the 1920s and 1930s, Marxist writers focused on the working-class Chartists, and on 'communist' Chartists such as George Julian Harney. They portrayed Chartism as a class war, yet they too blamed O'Connor for the failure of Chartism because he failed to organise a full-blown working-class revolution. However, the alternative school of thought is that Chartism can still be heralded as a success for putting the struggle of the working classes in the spotlight and turning it into a far more public debate than it had ever previously been.
Was Chartism a single movement or a series of local struggles?
In 1959, Asa Briggs argued that the best way to understand Chartism was by studying local examples. Historians doing this realised that Chartism was a very diverse movement – to the point where some historians even wondered whether there was a 'Chartist movement' at all.
In 1983, Dorothy Thompson re-established that Chartism was a national movement of people united under Feargus O'Connor. She saw O'Connor as key to Chartism's success, and a shared belief between him and the people that political reform would solve problems.
Post-modernist historians have developed this view. By studying Chartist language, they have interpreted Chartism as a movement, which attracted people from very different backgrounds and beliefs, who saw themselves as 'the People', campaigning for things which were morally right.
Chartism was a popular movement seeking political reform. You can compare it with the Peasants' Revolt of the Middle Ages and the Women's Suffrage Movement in the 20th century. One major question facing historians is why the Chartist movement did not use large-scale violence like the Peasants' Revolt and the Suffragettes, or turn into a revolution like the French Revolution.