19th Century Politics: Britain

The Industrial Revolution had made Britain the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Europe. Now that Britain was the wealthiest and most powerful nation, the people had time to think about what was going on within their country and think about what changes they might want to make. The rise of a rich middle class caused the British Parliament to alter voting laws so that more of the wealthy middle class would have influence. So as the middle class became wealthier, or at least the upper middle class was becoming wealthier, they were beginning to have more of a say in British Parliament. And since they had a bigger say, the Parliament ended up altering voting laws so that more of these upper middle class citizens would be able to have the right to vote and have influence in the government. This was done with the Reform Act of 1832. This act reorganized the power via voting rights based on population. So areas that had a bigger population would receive more votes. Areas that had a smaller population would have receive less votes because they were representing fewer people. And that made sense. However, many of the lower class and poorer middle class citizens did not own enough property to be eligible to vote and the wealthy upper classes continued to dominate the government. So even though the Reform Act allowed more of the upper middle class, the wealthier middle class citizens to vote, it didn’t extend that right to the lower class, or the poorer middle class. All the people who were doing the manual labor type of jobs, who were actually doing a lot of hands on work, not the business owners, but the people actually working in those businesses, often didn’t own enough property to be eligible to vote because there was a property requirement in the voting law. And so the wealthy upper classes, that would be the actual upper class and the wealthier middle class, continued to dominate the government. So if the lower classes didn’t have a voice, or a very loud voice, in Parliament, they weren’t going to be getting as much done as the people who did have a louder voice, who had more votes within Parliament. So when the Reform Act of 1832 did not extend the right to vote to the working classes, those poorer citizens and the poorer middle class citizens, a movement for universal suffrage surfaced. And suffrage is the right to vote. So a movement for everyone to be able to have the right to vote surfaced. Now you’ll see that they didn’t really mean everyone yet, but eventually it did get there. This movement was known as Chartism and it was known as Chartism because Chartists, the people who were practicing Chartism, produced the People’s Charter. And the People’s Charter listed the demands that the Chartists had, what they wanted to change within voting regulations so that it was fairer for everybody, or for a lot of the citizens. So first of all, it only allowed suffrage for men over twenty-one years old. So this was not going to really extend the right to vote to everybody, but to men, because at this time, men were the property owners, men were the people who could vote, women weren’t going to have a say in this at all. So, as I’m talking about this, just remember the people I’m talking about are only going to be the men, because first of all it had to be men over 21. So anyone over any man over 21 would get the right to vote. They also wanted election districts of equal size. They didn’t want it to have unequal population in different districts and then one district would have more representatives because they had a bigger area which was going to mean bigger population which meant more representatives from that area. So they wanted the districts to be about the same size, so if the populations were a little different, that wasn’t based on the fact that one area was this big and one area was this big on a map. So they wanted election districts of equal size. They wanted payment of members of Parliament. So they wanted the government to pay the members of Parliament, those chosen to serve on Parliament, they wanted those people to be paid so that poor men could serve as well. If people were poor and the man was poor and he somehow got voted by his district to go and be a member of Parliament, he was going to have to worry about how his family was going to survive while he was gone serving on Parliament. So he couldn’t be at home doing his real job, so if he was chosen for Parliament, he could be paid to be a member of Parliament and that would take care of what he would normally make as a salary at his job and that would take care of his family back home while he was away serving the government. They also wanted annual elections for Parliament. So they wanted people to be elected yearly. They didn’t want someone to get voted into Parliament and then be there forever and ever. They wanted them to have annual elections. So if they weren’t doing what they had promised to do whenever they got elected, they could be replaced by somebody new. If they were there for ten years or were there for life or until they chose to step down, then that didn’t give people much of a choice. so they wanted annual elections for Parliament. They wanted the elimination of property requirements. They didn’t think it was fair that because poorer people or lower classes didn’t own property or own enough property they couldn’t vote. Some people may just be renting or living somewhere while they were traveling and working, but they still wanted those people to have the right to vote, so they wanted to eliminate property requirements. And lastly they wanted to implement voting by secret ballots. They didn’t want it to be out in the open so everyone knew who voted, they wanted it to be done by secret ballots that were counted up afterward. So the Chartists wanted a lot of things to change. They had just had the Reform Act in Britain, but that wasn’t enough for the working class because it didn’t really extend to them, so the Chartists wanted all these rights added in as a reform to voting rights. And the working classes lobbied long and hard for universal suffrage until it was finally granted in the 1880’s. So this started after the 1832 Reform Act and it went on a long time before the Chartists got everything that they were looking for. And eventually they were able to achieve universal suffrage, and even later they were able to achieve true universal suffrage when women were also allowed to vote. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British empire, including it’s foreign territories. So this was a big step because Britain didn’t actually have slaves anymore. If people came into Britain, they weren’t considered a slave anymore. But a lot of Britain’s foreign territories, their colonies, did have slaves, so Britain enacted the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 which freed all slaves. They actually put together some money and they paid the slaveholders this money to free the slaves. So they were actually being paid for their property by the government so that the slaves would be freed. So after this time, Britain was supposed to have no slaves within its empire. So there were a lot of things going on politically during Britain but some of the major topics were voting rights reform and the abolition of slavery.


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Last updated: 07/25/2017
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