The Political History of England - Vol XI - From Addington's Administration to the close of William - IV.'s Reign (1801-1837)
by George Brodrick
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The weakness of Wellington's position had long since become apparent to all. By his conduct in regard to catholic emancipation he had estranged a powerful section of his tory followers. By his jealousy and haughty attitude towards his whig allies, he had forfeited their good-will, never very heartily given. By his treatment of Huskisson, a small but able body of politicians was thrown into the ranks of a discordant opposition. No one else could have induced the king to give way on catholic emancipation, but the king had not forgiven him, and submitted to him out of fear rather than out of confidence. Though singularly deficient in rhetorical power, he still maintained his ascendency in the house of lords by the aid of more eloquent colleagues, but Peel was his only efficient lieutenant in the house of commons. The vacancy in the office of lord privy seal, occasioned by the transference of Ellenborough to the board of control, had at last been filled in June, 1829, by the appointment of Lord Rosslyn, nephew of the first earl, who, however, added nothing to the strength of the ministry. In the meantime, reform had succeeded catholic emancipation as the one burning question of politics, but with this all-important difference that it roused enthusiasm in the popular mind. Political unions, like the branches of the catholic association, were springing up all over the country, and a series of motions was made in the house of commons which feebly reflected the feverish agitation in all the active centres of population. One of these, brought forward by the Marquis of Blandford, who had made a similar motion in the previous year, was really prompted by enmity against the author of catholic emancipation. Another, introduced by Lord Howick, son of Earl Grey, called for some general and comprehensive measure to remedy the admitted abuses of the electoral system. A third, and far more practical, attempt was made by Lord John Russell to obtain the enfranchisement of Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. A fourth, and perfectly futile proposal, was made by O'Connell, in the shape of a bill for triennial parliaments, universal suffrage, and vote by ballot, to which Russell moved a statesmanlike amendment, in favour of transferring members from petty boroughs to counties and great unrepresented towns. All these motions were defeated by larger or smaller majorities, but no one doubted that parliamentary reform was inevitable, and few can have imagined that Wellington was either willing or competent to grapple with it.

While domestic affairs were in this state, George IV. died. His constitution, weakened by many years of self-indulgence, had been further depressed by a growing sense of loneliness and by the long struggle with his ministers over catholic emancipation. On April 15 his illness had been made public, and on May 24 it had been necessary to bring in a bill, authorising the use of a stamp, to be affixed in his presence in lieu of the royal sign manual. A month later, the disease of the heart from which he suffered took a fatal turn, and on June 26 he passed away, not without dignity, in the sixty-eighth year of his age. Perhaps no other English king has been so harshly judged by posterity, nor is it possible to acquit him of moral vices which outweighed all his merits, considerable as they were. The Duke of Wellington, who knew him as well as any man, declared that he was a marvellous compound of virtues and defects, but that, on the whole, the good elements preponderated. Peel, who had become by his father's death Sir Robert, testified in Parliament that he "never exercised, or wished to exercise, a prerogative of the crown, except for the advantage of his people". These estimates assuredly err on the side of charity, and are quite inconsistent with other statements of the duke himself.

George IV., it is true, possessed many royal gifts. He was a man of no ordinary ability, with a fine presence, courtly manners, various accomplishments, and clear-sighted intelligence on every subject within the sphere of his duties. But all these kingly qualities were marred by a heartlessness which rendered him incapable of true love or friendship, and a duplicity which made it impossible for him to retain the respect of his ministers. His private life was not wholly unlike that of the Regent Orleans and had much the same influence on the society of the metropolis. He was an undutiful son, a bad husband, a perfidious friend, with little sense of truth or honour, and destitute of that public spirit which atoned for the political obstinacy of his father. No one sincerely regretted his death, except the favourites who had been enriched by his extravagance, and actually succeeded in carrying off a large booty out of the valuables that he had amassed. Nevertheless, his regency is identified with a glorious period in our military history, and his reign ushered in a new age of reform and national prosperity. In the great struggle against Napoleon and the pacification of Europe he gave his ministers a cordial and effective support. To catholic emancipation he was honestly opposed, but he kept his opposition within constitutional limits, and his intense selfishness did not exclude a certain sentiment of philanthropy and even of patriotism.


His successor, William IV., was greatly inferior to him intellectually, and infinitely less conversant with the business of state. Most of this prince's early life was spent at sea, where he saw a fair share of service, and became the friend of Nelson, but incurred his father's displeasure by infringing the rules of discipline. Having been created Duke of Clarence in 1789, he was rapidly promoted in the navy, but remained on shore without employment for some forty years before his accession, taking an occasional part in debates of the house of lords, and generally acting with the whig party. During this long period he was little regarded by his future subjects, and led a somewhat obscure life, at first in the company of Mrs. Jordan, by whom he had a numerous family. After his marriage with the Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen in 1818, he became a more important personage, and, as we have seen, was made lord high admiral by Canning, but held office for little more than a year. He was thus entirely destitute of political training, and was living in privacy when he was called to ascend the throne on the eve of a singularly momentous crisis.

The session was prolonged until July 23, when parliament was prorogued by the new king in person, and on the following day a dissolution was proclaimed, the writs being made returnable on September 14. During the month that elapsed between the death of George IV. and the prorogation, no serious business was done, but the leaders of opposition in both houses moved to provide for a regency, in view of a possible demise of the crown before a fresh parliament could be assembled. This course was clearly dictated by the highest expediency, for, had the king's life been cut short suddenly, the young Princess Victoria, then eleven years old, would have become sovereign with full powers, but without protection against the baleful influence of her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, the least trustworthy person in the realm. In advocating it, however, the whigs showed an evident disposition to win the favour of William IV., who had never broken away, like his predecessor, from his whig connexion. These motions were defeated, but the opposition gained popularity at the expense of the government, by raising debates on certain state prosecutions for libel, and on the question of colonial slavery. Their position was further strengthened by a widespread impression that the king himself was a reformer at heart, and would seize an early opportunity of declaring his sentiments. His weakness had not yet disclosed itself, while his kindliness earned him golden opinions, as he "walked in London streets with his umbrella under his arm, and gave a frank and sailor-like greeting to all old acquaintances".

The election of 1830, following close on the revolution of July in Paris, was the death-blow of the old tory rule in England. The widespread sympathy which the original uprising of 1789 had excited among Englishmen, but which the atrocities of jacobinism had quenched, was now revived by the comparatively bloodless victory of constitutional principles and the accession of a citizen-king in France. The growing enthusiasm for reform, thus stimulated, exercised a decisive effect in all the constituencies except the pocket-boroughs. Brougham was returned without opposition for Yorkshire, and Hume by a large majority for Middlesex, two brothers of Sir Robert Peel lost their seats, and Croker was defeated for Dublin University. Distrust of the government was equally shown in the counties and in the great cities, but in some instances ultra-tories were elected, in revenge for catholic emancipation or for alleged neglect of agricultural interests. It was calculated that fifty seats, in all, had changed hands, and the parliament which assembled in October 26 was very different in constitution and temper from any of those which supported tory ministries with unshaken constancy during the great war and the long period of agitation consequent on the peace.

The losses of the government in Great Britain, partly due to its Irish policy, were not compensated by any gain in Ireland, which did not fail to display the ingratitude so often experienced by its benefactors. Catholic emancipation was now treated as a vantage ground on which the battle of repeal might be waged. Association after association was formed by O'Connell, only to be put down by proclamation and to re-appear under another name. The worst passions of the people were effectually roused, assassinations became frequent, and Peel's correspondence with Hardinge, then chief secretary, shows that he fully recognised the failure of his experiment, as a cure for Irish anarchy.[101] In the course of this new agitation, O'Connell used most offensive expressions for which Hardinge called him to account. The chief secretary's act may have been unjustifiable, but the shuffling and faint-hearted conduct of O'Connell in declining this and later challenges provoked by his foul language was fatal to his reputation for courage. The most insolent of bullies, he never failed to consult his own personal safety, by professing conscientious objections to duelling, as well as by keeping just outside the meshes of the criminal law.


A few weeks before parliament met a tragical accident closed the life of Huskisson, whose death was rendered all the more impressive by its circumstances. In 1825 the idea of railways for the rapid conveyance of goods and passengers bore fruit in an act for the construction of a line between Liverpool and Manchester. It was not in itself a new idea, for tramways had long been in use, and so far back as 1814 George Stephenson had constructed a locomotive engine for a colliery. But it was generally believed that such engines must always be limited to a speed of a few miles an hour, and even the great engineer, Telford, giving evidence before a committee in 1825, did not venture to speak of a higher maximum speed than fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Few indeed were far-sighted enough to credit this estimate, and the incredulity of ignorance was aided by the forces of self-interest, for the profits of canals, stage-coaches, and carriers' vans were directly threatened by the innovation of railways. However, George Stephenson quietly persevered, and from the moment that his pioneer engine, the "Rocket," won the prize in a great competition of locomotives, "the old modes of transit were changed throughout the whole civilised world". On September 15, 1830, the first public trial of this and other engines was made at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Wellington, Peel, and other eminent personages were present, among whom was Huskisson, just returned for Liverpool. Two trains proceeded towards Manchester on parallel lines, and stopped at the Parkgate station. There several passengers got out, and Huskisson was making his way to shake hands with the duke when he was struck by a carriage of the other train, already in movement, fell upon the rails, and was fatally crushed. He bore his sufferings with great fortitude, but died during the night at a neighbouring vicarage to which he was carried. He could ill be spared by his party, for, though he was not the man to ride the storm which raged over the reform bill, his counsels might have saved the whigs from the just reproach of financial incapacity and have hastened the advent of free trade.


The winter session of 1830 opened with an ominous calm. It was believed that private negotiations were going on between the ministry and the survivors of Canning's following, which might result in a moderate scheme of parliamentary reform. These expectations were utterly discomfited by the king's speech delivered on November 2. It has unjustly been described as "the most offensive that had been uttered by any monarch since the revolution". On the contrary, it was tame and colourless for the most part, recording his majesty's resolution to uphold treaties and enforce order in the United Kingdom, but welcoming the new French monarchy in terms which Grey emphatically commended. It gave offence to liberals by describing the revolutionary movement in Belgium as a "revolt"; but what called forth an immediate outburst of popular resentment was its significant reticence on the subject of reform. This resentment was aggravated tenfold by the Duke of Wellington's celebrated speech in the lords, declaring against any reform whatever. The duke always refused to admit that this declaration was the cause of his subsequent fall, which he attributed, by preference, to his adoption of catholic emancipation. Speaking deliberately in reply to Grey, who had indicated reform as the only true remedy for popular discontent, the duke stated that no measure of reform yet proposed would, in his opinion, improve the representative system then existing, which, he said, "answered all the good purposes of legislation" to a greater degree than "any legislature in any country whatever". He went further, and avowed his conviction not only that this system "possessed the full and entire confidence of the country," but also that no better system could be devised by the wit of man. Its special virtue, according to him, consisted in the fact of its producing a representative assembly which "contained a large body of the property of the country, and in which the landed interests had a preponderating influence". Finally, he protested that he would never bring forward a reform measure himself, and that "he should always feel it his duty to resist such measures when proposed by others".

There is no reason to suppose that the duke had consulted any of his colleagues before making this declaration. Indeed, it is known that Peel had just before received a confidential offer of co-operation in carrying a moderate reform bill from Palmerston, Edward Stanley, grandson of the Earl of Derby, Sir James Graham, and the Grants; nor had these overtures been definitely rejected.[102] Some lame attempts were made to clear the cabinet, as a whole, from responsibility for their chief's outspoken opinions, and Peel cautiously limited himself to a doubt whether any safe measure of reform would satisfy the reformers. But he would not separate himself from Wellington, and Wellington's ultimatum remained unretracted.

Brougham at once gave notice of his intention to bring forward the question of parliamentary reform in a fortnight. In the meantime the duke had committed a mistake which irritated the people, and especially the inhabitants of London. It happened that the king and queen, with the ministers, were engaged to dine with the lord mayor on November 9. Three days earlier, the lord mayor-elect warned the prime minister that a riot was apprehended on that occasion, that an attempt would probably be made to assassinate him, and that it would be desirable to come attended by a strong military guard. Upon this intimation, confirmed by others, the cabinet most unwisely decided not to surround the mansion house with a large armed force, but to put off the king's visit to the city. A panic naturally ensued, consols fell three per cent. in an hour and a half, and the disorderly classes achieved a victory without running the smallest risk. There were local disturbances in the evening, and the duke arranged to join Peel at the home office, in case decisive measures should be required, but the new police were too strong for the mob, and the whole affair passed off quietly, though not without involving the government in some ridicule. The Marquis Wellesley, now in opposition to his brother, declared the postponement of the dinner to be "the boldest act of cowardice" within his knowledge.

If Wellington sought to conciliate the ultra-tories by his unfortunate speech, he was soon undeceived. While Brougham's motion was pending, the government proposed a revision of the civil list which purported to effect slight economies for the benefit of the public. It was objected, however, that a greater reduction of charges should have been contemplated, and that parliament should have been invited to deal with the revenues derived from the duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, which, as Peel explained, formed no part of those placed at the disposal of parliament. Sir Henry Parnell moved to refer the civil list to a select committee; the chancellor of the exchequer directly opposed the motion, and, after a short discussion, a division was taken on November 15. The result, which had been foreseen, was a majority of twenty-nine against the government in a house of 437 members. There were many defections among the discontented tories, and the Wellington ministry preferred to fall on an issue of minor importance, rather than await a decisive contest on the reform question. On the following day, therefore, both the duke and Peel announced the acceptance of their resignations, and it was known that Grey had received the king's command to form a new administration.


Grey was the inevitable head of any cabinet empowered to carry parliamentary reform. His dignified presence, his stately eloquence, his unblemished character, and his parliamentary experience, marked him out for leadership, and disguised his want of practical acquaintance with the middle and lower classes of his countrymen. His political career, ranging over forty-four years, though not destitute of errors, had been perfectly consistent. From the first he was a staunch adherent of Fox; he was among the managers who conducted the prosecution of Warren Hastings; his connexion with the Society of the Friends of the People, and his advocacy of reform during Pitt's first administration are described in the preceding volume of this history. On Pitt's death he became closely associated with Grenville; it will be remembered that he joined his short-lived government, originally as first lord of the admiralty, and afterwards as Fox's successor at the foreign office. It was he who carried through the house of commons the bill for the abolition of the slave trade, and it may truly be said that, in opposition, he was equally persistent in supporting every measure in favour of liberty, political or commercial, and in resisting every measure, necessary or otherwise, which could be interpreted as restricting it. We have seen how he more than once declined overtures for a coalition with his opponents, and showed a bitter personal antipathy to Canning, whom he was more than suspected of despising as a brilliant plebeian adventurer. This suspicion of aristocratic prejudice, ill harmonising with democratic principles, had never been quite dispelled, and was now to be confirmed by the composition of his own cabinet.

All the members of this cabinet, with four exceptions, sat in the house of lords. No cabinet had contained so few commoners since the reconstruction of Liverpool's ministry in 1822. Of the four who now sat in the house of commons, Lord Althorp was heir-apparent to an earldom; Lord Palmerston was an Irish peer; Graham was a baronet of great territorial influence; Charles Grant was still a commoner, though he was afterwards raised to the peerage. In the distribution of offices, full justice was done to Canning's followers. Three of these occupied posts of the highest importance, Palmerston at the foreign office, Lamb, who had succeeded his father as Viscount Melbourne in 1828, at the home office, and Goderich at the colonial office, while Grant became president of the board of control. The selection of Graham as first lord of the admiralty did not escape criticism, but was due to his tried energy in financial reform, and was justified by the result. Lansdowne was made president of the council, and Holland chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. Both of these had been Grey's colleagues in the administration of "All the Talents". Althorp, who succeeded Goulburn at the exchequer, and Carlisle, who accepted a seat in the cabinet without office, were both whigs of tried fidelity. But the Duke of Richmond, the new postmaster-general, was a deserter from the tory ranks, and Lord Durham, the premier's son-in-law, the new lord privy seal, was a radical of the most aggressive type, well qualified, as the event proved, to disturb the peace of any council to which he might be admitted. Three occupants of places outside the cabinet remain to be mentioned. One of these, the Marquis Wellesley, had been a warm supporter of catholic emancipation when the Duke of Wellington stoutly opposed it, and his brother's conversion on that question had not affected his own relations with the whig party, which now welcomed him as lord steward. Lord John Russell, the new paymaster of the forces, had identified himself as prominently as Grey himself with the promotion of parliamentary reform, and Stanley, the new chief secretary for Ireland, was probably selected for his brilliant powers in debate, as the natural and most worthy antagonist of the great demagogue, O'Connell.


But the most formidable of all the "radical reformers" still remained to be conciliated, and provided with a post which might satisfy his restless ambition. At the end of 1830 Brougham was in the plenitude of his marvellous powers, and in the zenith of his unique popularity. As member for the great county of York, returned free of expense on the shoulders of the people, he already occupied the foremost position among British commoners, and it was feared that he might use it for his own purposes in a dictatorial spirit. He had recently declared in Yorkshire that "nothing on earth should ever tempt him to accept place," and that he was conscious of the power to compel the execution of measures which, before that democratic election, he could only "ventilate". So late as November 16, he assured the house of commons that "no change in the administration could by any possibility affect him," adding that he would bring forward his motion for parliamentary reform on the 25th, whatever might then be the state of affairs, and whatever ministers should then be in office. The great whig peers were most anxious to keep him out of the cabinet without losing his support, or, still worse, provoking his active hostility. With this view, Grey indiscreetly offered him the attorney-generalship, and we cannot be surprised that Brougham rejected the offer with some indignation and disdain. It was no secret that his supreme desire was to become master of the rolls—an office compatible with a seat in the house of commons—but his future colleagues well knew that, in that case, they would be at his mercy in the house. Thereupon it was suggested, probably by the king himself, that it might be the less of two dangers to entrust him with the great seal, which Lord Lyndhurst was quite prepared to resume under a fourth premier. Accordingly, it was known on November 20 that Brougham was to be the whig lord chancellor, and on the 22nd he actually took his place on the woolsack. His title was Baron Brougham and Vaux, but, though he lived to retain it for nearly forty years, he always preferred, with pardonable vanity, to sign his name as "Henry Brougham".

Before the close of 1830 the new ministers found time to carry a regency bill, whereby the Duchess of Kent (unless she married a foreigner) was to be regent in the event of the Princess Victoria succeeding to the crown during her minority. Having adopted the watchword of "Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform," they gave an earnest of their zeal for retrenchment by instituting a parliamentary inquiry into the possible reduction of official salaries, including their own. The defeat of Stanley by "Orator" Hunt at Preston was a warning against undue reliance on popular confidence, for Preston was already a highly democratic constituency, largely composed of ignorant "potwallopers". A similar but more emphatic warning came from Ireland, where O'Connell did his utmost to insult and defy Anglesey, the new lord-lieutenant, in spite of his sacrifices for catholic emancipation, and his well-known sympathy with the cause of reform. In the southern counties of England, too, violent disturbances had broken out, and were marked by all the ferocity and terrorism characteristic of luddism in the manufacturing districts. They spread from Kent, Sussex, and Surrey into Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire. In these four counties there was a wanton and wholesale destruction of agricultural machinery, of farm-buildings, and especially of ricks, as if the misery of labourers could possibly be cured by impoverishing their only employers. The rioters moved about in large organised bodies, and their anarchical passions were deliberately inflamed by the writings of unscrupulous men like Cobbett and Carlile.

Happily, the ministers showed no sign of the weakness upon which the ringleaders had probably calculated. They promptly issued a proclamation declaring their resolution to put down lawless outrage, and promised effective support to the lords-lieutenant of the disturbed counties. Acting upon this assurance, Wellington himself went down to Hampshire, and took a leading part in quelling disorder. The government next appointed a special commission, which tried many hundreds of prisoners and sentenced the worst to death, though few were executed. This vigour soon overawed the organised gangs which, in one or two instances, had only been dispersed by military force. Finally, they prosecuted Carlile and Cobbett for instigating the poor labourers to crime. The former was convicted at the Old Bailey, and condemned to a long term of imprisonment, with a heavy fine. The trial of Cobbett was postponed until the following July, when the frenzy of reform was at its height. He defended himself with great audacity in a speech of six hours, calling the lord chancellor with other leading reformers as witnesses, and succeeded in escaping conviction by the disagreement and discharge of the jury.


Two other questions engaged the attention of parliament on the eve of the great struggle over the reform bill. One of these was the settlement of the civil list, which the Duke of Wellington's ministry had failed to effect. William IV. was not an avaricious sovereign, nor did he share the spendthrift inclination of his brother. But he was disposed to stickle for the hereditary rights of the crown, both public and private, and he greatly disliked the details of his expenditure being scrutinised by a parliamentary committee. Now, Grey and his colleagues stood pledged to such a committee, and could not avoid promoting its appointment. They propitiated the king, however, by excluding the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster from the inquiry, and ultimately succeeded in persuading the house of commons to grant a civil list of L510,000 a year. But the publication of a return containing a complete list of sinecure offices and pensions was turned to good account by the economists, and produced an outburst of public indignation, which was by no means unreasonable. Great results were expected from the report of the select committee on the civil list, which revised the salaries of officials in the royal household, as well as the emoluments of pensioners. It was even demanded that no regard should be paid to vested interests, but Grey firmly supported the private remonstrances of the king against such an act of confiscation. In fact, the savings recommended by the committee were so trifling that it was thought better to waive the question for the time, and the first economical essay of the new regime ended in failure.

The budget introduced by Althorp soon after the meeting of parliament on February 3, 1831, and in anticipation of the reform bill, was equally unsuccessful as a specimen of whig finance. Finding that, after all, he could not effect a saving of more than one million on the national expenditure, as reduced by his capable predecessor, Goulburn, he nevertheless proposed to repeal the duties on coals, tallow candles, printed cottons, and glass, as well as to diminish by one half the duties on newspapers and tobacco. To meet the deficit thus created, he designed an increase of the wine and timber duties, new taxation of raw cotton, and, above all, a tax of ten shillings per cent. on all transfers of real or funded property. This last proposal was at once denounced by Goulburn, Peel, and Sugden, the late solicitor-general, as a breach of public faith between the state and its creditors. Their protests were loudly echoed by the city, and the obnoxious transfer duty was abandoned. The same fate befell the proposed increase of the timber duties, and Althorp only carried his budget after submitting to further modifications. Those who had relied on his promises of economical reform were signally disappointed, and, had not parliamentary reform overshadowed all other issues, the credit of the government would have been rudely shaken in the first session after its formation. But this great struggle, now to be described, so engrossed the attention of the country, that little room was left for the consideration of other interests, until it should be decided.

It is probable that no great measure was ever preceded by so thorough a preparation of the public mind as the reform bills of 1831-32. Ever since the early part of the eighteenth century the abuses of the representative system had been freely acknowledged, and no one attempted to defend them in principle. The multitude of close boroughs, the smallness of the electoral body, the sale of seats in parliament, the wide prevalence of gross bribery, and the enormous expense of elections—these were notorious evils which no one denied, though some palliated them, and few ventured to assail them in earnest by drastic proposals, lest they should undermine the constitution. So far back as 1770 Chatham had denounced them, and predicted that unless parliament reformed itself from within before the end of the century, it would be reformed "with a vengeance" from without. In 1780 the Duke of Richmond had introduced a bill in favour of universal suffrage, and Pitt had brought forward bills or motions in favour of parliamentary reform as a private member in 1782 and 1783, and as prime minister in 1785. But the French revolution persuaded him that the time was not favourable to reform, and he successfully opposed Grey's motion for referring a number of petitions in favour of reform to a committee in 1793.

After this, a strong reaction set in, and the reform question had little interest for the governing classes during the continuance of the great war. It was never allowed to sleep, however, and in 1809, a bill introduced by Curwen to pave the way for reform by preventing the return of members upon corrupt agreements, actually passed both houses, though in so mutilated a form that it was practically a dead letter. Still, the cause was indefatigably pleaded by Brand, and Burdett, who in 1819 made himself the spokesman of the violent reform agitation then spreading over the country. Unfortunately, this violence, and the extravagance of the demands put forward by the democratic leaders, were themselves fatal obstacles to a temperate consideration of the question, and threw back the reform movement for several years. In 1821, when Grampound was disfranchised, it assumed, as we have seen, a more constitutional form, and motions in favour of reform were proposed by Russell in 1822, 1823, and 1826, and by Blandford in 1829. Had Canning placed himself at the head of the movement the course of domestic history during the reign of George IV. might have been very different. As it was, the number of petitions in favour of reform sensibly fell off in the last half of the reign, and its tory opponents vainly imagined that the movement had spent itself. We now know that, in the absence of noisy demonstrations, it was really and constantly gaining strength in the minds of thoughtful men until it reached its climax at the end of 1830.


The first act of the great political drama which occupied the next eighteen months may be said to have opened with the fall of Wellington, and the formation of the whig ministry. These events, together with the success of the Paris revolution, supplied the motive power needed to combine the great body of the middle classes with the proletariat in a national crusade against the political privileges long exercised by a powerful landed aristocracy. It is true that reform, unlike catholic emancipation, had always appealed to broad popular sympathies, and had been advocated by men like Grey and Burdett as carrying with it the redress of all other grievances. But Canning was by no means the only liberal statesman who heartily dreaded it, and even the advanced reformers had not fully grasped the comprehensive meaning of the idea which they embraced, or the far-reaching consequences involved in it. The palpable anomaly of Old Sarum returning members to parliament, while Birmingham was unrepresented, was shocking to common sense, and so was the monopoly of the franchise by a handful of electors in some of the larger boroughs, especially in Scotland. But few appreciated how seriously constitutional liberty had been curtailed by the growth of these abuses (unchecked by the Commonwealth) since the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, how effectually home and foreign policy was controlled by a small circle of noble families dominant in the lower as well as in the upper chamber, how vast a transfer of sovereignty from class to class would inevitably be wrought by a thorough reform bill, and how certainly men newly entrusted with power would use it for their own advantage, whether or not that should coincide with the advantage of the nation. Such general aspects of the question are seldom noticed in the earlier debates upon it, and economical reform sometimes appears to occupy a larger space than parliamentary reform in the liberal statesmanship of the Georgian age.

With Wellington's declaration against any parliamentary reform, this apathy vanished, and the movement, gathering up into itself all other popular aspirations thenceforward filled the whole political horizon. Reform unions sprang up everywhere, and instituted a most active propaganda. So rapid was its spread and so wild the promises lavished by radical demagogues, that Grey and his wiser colleagues soon felt themselves further removed from their own extreme left wing than from the moderate section of the conservatives. It is abundantly clear that Grey himself, faithful as he was to reform, never dreamed of inaugurating a reign of democracy. He often declared in private that such a bill as he contemplated would prove, in its effect, an aristocratic measure, and he doubtless believed that it would be possible to bring the new constituencies and the new electoral bodies under the same conservative influences which had been dominant for so many generations. He did not foresee, as Palmerston did thirty years later, that, even if the political actors remained the same, they "would play to the gallery" instead of to the pit or boxes. He would, indeed, have repudiated the maxim: "Everything for the people, and nothing by the people"; he was fully prepared to place the house of commons in the hands of the people, or at least of the great middle class, but he regarded the crown and the house of lords as almost equal powers, and he never doubted that property and education would practically continue to rule the government of the country.


When the whigs came into office they were singularly fortunate in the high character and consistency of their chief, no less than in the divisions of their opponents, whose right wing showed almost as mutinous a spirit as their own left wing. Even between Wellington and Peel there was a want of cordial harmony and confidence, yet Peel was the only tory statesman of eminent capacity in the house of commons. The attitude of the king, too, was not only strictly constitutional but friendly, though it afterwards appeared that he relied too implicitly on Grey and Althorp to protect him against the machinations of the radicals. The letters written by his orders, though mostly composed by his private secretary, Sir Herbert Taylor, display marked ability together with a very shrewd and just conception of the situation. His loyal adoption of a moderate reform policy was a most important element of strength to his ministers at the outset of their great enterprise, and, if he afterwards held back, it was in deference to scruples which several of them shared in their hearts. Nor was the violence of the ultra-radicals, or the scurrilous language of O'Connell by any means an unmixed source of weakness to men engaged in framing and carrying a temperate reform bill. Their firm resistance to extravagant demands reassured many a waverer and showed how carefully their comprehensive plan had been matured. On the other hand, they had to contend against difficulties not yet fully revealed. One of these was their own want of administrative experience, contrasting unfavourably with the statesmanlike capacity of Peel. Another was the intractable character of two at least within their own innermost councils—Durham and Brougham. A third was the inflexible conservatism of a great majority in the house of lords, who, unlike the people at large, clearly understood that the impending conflict was a life-and-death struggle for political supremacy between themselves and the commons—the greatest that had been waged since the revolutions of the seventeenth century.

It was privately known that a committee had been empowered to draft the bill awaited with so much impatience. This committee consisted of two members of the cabinet, Durham and Graham, together with two members of the administration not of cabinet rank, the Earl of Bessborough's eldest son, Lord Duncannon, then chief whip of the whig party, and Russell, who was second to none as a staunch and judicious promoter of parliamentary reform. In spite of his vanity and petulance, Durham deserves the credit of having drawn up the report, highly appreciated by the king, upon which the projected measure was founded. It originally included vote by ballot, and it is rather strange that on this point Durham was powerfully supported by Graham, but opposed by Russell. It is still more strange that Brougham, whose scheme of reform was locked up in his own breast, was honestly disturbed by the radicalism of his colleagues and specially objected to so large a disfranchisement of boroughs as they contemplated. Upon the whole, however, the bill was the product of an united cabinet, and received the express approval of the king in all its essential features. The elaborate letter which he addressed to Grey on February 4, 1831, betrays a sense of relief on finding that universal suffrage and the ballot were not to be pressed upon him In declaring that he never could have given his consent to such revolutionary innovations, he insists strongly on the necessity of maintaining an "equilibrium" between the crown, the lords, and the commons, as well as between the "representation of property" and that of numbers.

The reform bill of 1831, which differed only in detail from the act passed in 1832, cannot be understood without some knowledge of the system which that act transformed. This system has been well described as "combining survivals from the middle ages with abuses of the prerogative in later times". The counties remained as they had remained for centuries; Rutland, for instance, returned as many representatives as Yorkshire, until in 1821 the two seats taken from Grampound were added to those already possessed by Yorkshire. On the other hand, the old franchise of the 40s. freeholders was more widely diffused since the value of money had been greatly depreciated. Still, the influence of the great county families was almost supreme, and they were firmly entrenched in the nomination boroughs, where there was scarcely a pretence of free election. The crown had originally a discretion in summoning members from boroughs, and used it by issuing writs to all the wealthiest as better able to bear taxation and more competent to sanction it. The poorer boroughs, too, were also glad to escape representation in order to save the expense of their members' wages. The discretionary power of the crown was afterwards used in creating petty boroughs such as "the Cornish group," for the purpose of packing the house of commons with crown nominees. This practice, however, ceased in the reign of Charles II., and these petty boroughs fell by degrees into the hands of great landowners, who dictated the choice of representatives.

The result has been concisely stated as follows: "The majority of the house of commons was elected by less than fifteen thousand persons. Seventy members were returned by thirty-five places with scarcely any voters at all; ninety members were returned by forty-six places with no more than fifty voters; thirty-seven members by nineteen places with no more than one hundred voters; fifty-two members by twenty-six places with no more than two hundred voters. The local distribution of the representation was flagrantly unfair.... Cornwall was a corrupt nest of little boroughs whose vote outweighed that of great and populous districts. At Old Sarum a deserted site, at Gatton an ancient wall sent two representatives to the house of commons. Eighty-four men actually nominated one hundred and fifty-seven members for parliament. In addition to these, one hundred and fifty members were returned on the recommendation of seventy patrons, and thus one hundred and fifty-four patrons returned three hundred and seven members."[103] Household suffrage prevailed in a few boroughs, and here barefaced corruption was common. Seats for boroughs, appropriately called "rotten," were frequently put up to sale; otherwise, they were reserved for young favourites of the proprietor. Neither yearly tenants, nor leaseholders, nor even copyholders, had votes for counties. Of Scotland it is enough to say that free voting had practically ceased to exist both in counties and in boroughs, as the borough franchise was the monopoly of self-elected town councils, and the county franchise of persons, often non-resident, who happened to own "superiorities".


The reform bill of the whig ministry, drawn on broad and simple lines, struck at the root of this system. Its twofold basis was a liberal extension of the suffrage with a very large redistribution of seats. The elective franchise in counties, hitherto confined to freeholders, was to be conferred on L10 copyholders and L50 leaseholders; the borough franchise was to exclude "scot and lot" voters, "potwallopers" and most other survivals of antiquated electorates, but to include ratepaying L10 householders. The qualification for this franchise had originally been fixed at L20, and the king deprecated any reduction, but the omission of the ballot reconciled him and other timid reformers to an immense increase in the lower class of borough voters. Sixty boroughs of less than 2,000 inhabitants, returning 119 members, were to be disfranchised altogether; forty-seven others, with less than 4,000 inhabitants, were to be deprived of one member, and Weymouth was to lose two out of the four members which it returned in combination with the borough of Melcombe Regis. Fifty-five new seats were allotted to the English counties, forty-two to the great unrepresented towns, five to Scotland, three to Ireland, and one to Wales. Altogether the numerical strength of the house of commons was to be reduced by sixty-two, and this entirely at the expense of England. Both the county and borough franchises in Scotland were to be assimilated generally to those established for England, and the L10 borough franchise was extended to Ireland. The bill contained many other provisions designed to amend the practice of registration, the voting power of non-resident electors, and the cumbrously expensive machinery of elections. It is important to notice that it also limited the duration of each parliament to five years—a concession to radicalism afterwards abandoned and never since adopted.

On February 3 parliament met after the adjournment, and Grey stated that a measure of reform had been framed, but the nature of it was not disclosed to the house of commons until March 1, and during the interval the secret was kept with great fidelity. The task of explaining it was entrusted to Russell, whose thorough mastery of its letter and spirit fully justified the choice, partly suggested by his aristocratic connexions and historical name. His speech was remarkable for clearness and cogency rather than for rhetorical brilliancy, and he was careful to rest his case on constitutional equity and political expediency of the highest order rather than on vague and abstract principles of popular rights. The debate on the motion for leave to bring in the bill lasted seven nights, and was vigorously sustained on both sides. The drastic and sweeping character of the measure took the whole house by surprise, while its authors justly claimed some credit for moderation in rejecting the radical demands of universal suffrage, vote by ballot, and triennial, if not annual, parliaments. Not only inside but outside the walls of St. Stephen's the statement of the government had been awaited with the utmost impatience, and it was universally felt that an issue had now been raised which hardly admitted of compromise. The king himself, though much engrossed by minor questions affecting the civil list and the pension list, heartily congratulated Grey on the favourable reception and prospects of the measure, which he regarded as a safeguard against more democratic schemes. His great fear was of a collision between the two houses, and the sequel proved that it was not unfounded. For the present, however, all promised well. Peel denounced the bill with less than his usual caution, but declined to give battle upon it, and it passed the first reading on March 9 without a division. Indeed, the chief danger to the stability of the government arose from its defeat on the timber duties. This and other vexatious rebuffs so irritated Grey that he actually contemplated a dissolution, lest the reform bill itself should meet with a like fate. But the king would not hear of it, and the cabinet wisely decided to follow the example of Pitt and ignore an adverse division on a merely financial proposal, however significant of parliamentary feeling.


Between the 9th and the 21st, the date fixed for the second reading, popular excitement rose to a formidable height. Monster meetings were held in the great centres of population, and the political unions put forth all their strength. Nevertheless, the efforts of the "borough-mongers" were all but successful, and after only two nights debate the bill passed its second reading by a bare majority of one, 302 voting for it, and 301 against it. After this demonstration of strength on the part of its opponents, no one could expect that it would survive the ordeal of discussion in committee, and a letter of Lord Durham, written in anticipation of the event, sums up with great force the reasons for an early dissolution. The crisis was precipitated by the action of General Gascoyne, member for Liverpool, who moved before the house could go into committee that in no case should the number of representatives from England and Wales be diminished. In the hope of conciliating some wavering members, the ministry framed certain modifications of their original scheme, but they do not seem to have entertained the idea of accepting Gascoyne's proposal in its entirety. In the division, which took place on April 19, they were defeated by 299 votes to 291, and on the following morning advised the king to dissolve. In spite of his former refusal, more than once repeated, the king yielded to necessity, feeling that another change of government, in the midst of European complications, and in prospect of revolutionary agitation in the country, would be a greater evil than a general election.

The opposition, flushed with victory, pressed its advantage to extremes, and successfully resisted a motion for the grant of supplies. Urged by Althorp, the cabinet promptly resolved on recommending that the dissolution should be immediate, and the king, roused to energy by indignation, eagerly adopted their recommendation. Indeed, on hearing that Lord Wharncliffe intended to move in the house of lords for an address to the crown against a dissolution, he strongly resented such an attempt to interfere with his prerogative, and declared himself ready to start at once and dissolve parliament in person. Difficulties being raised about preparing the royal carriages in time, he cut them short by remarking that he was prepared to go in a hackney-coach—a royal saying which spread like wildfire over the country. Both houses were scenes of confusion and uproar when he arrived, preceded by the usual discharges of artillery, which excited the angry disputants to fury. Lord Mansfield, who was supporting the motion for an address, continued speaking as the king entered, until he was forcibly compelled to resume his seat. Even Peel was only restrained by like means from disregarding the appearance of the usher of the black rod who came to summon the commons from the bar of the house. The king preserved his composure, and announced an immediate prorogation of parliament with a view to its dissolution, and an appeal to the country on the great question of reform. Such an appeal could only be made to constituencies under threat of thorough reconstruction or total extinction, but from this moment the ultimate issue ceased to be doubtful.


[101] Parker, Sir Robert Peel, ii., 160-62.

[102] Arbuthnot to Peel, Nov. 1, 1830, Parker, Sir Robert Peel, ii., 163-66.

[103] Goldwin Smith, United Kingdom, ii., 320.



The general election which took place in the summer of 1831 was perhaps the most momentous on record. The news of the sudden dissolution, carrying with it the assurance of the king's hearty assent to reform, stirred popular enthusiasm to an intensity never equalled before or since. From John o' Groat's to the Land's End a cry was raised of The bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill. This cry signified more than appears on the surface, and was not wholly one-sided in its application. No doubt it was a passionate and defiant warning against any manipulation or dilution of the bill in a reactionary sense, but it was also a distinct protest against attempts by the extreme radicals to amend it in an opposite direction. Now, as ever, the impulse was given by the middle classes, and they were in no mood to imperil their own cause by revolutionary claims. They could not always succeed, however, in checking the fury of the populace, which had been taught to clamour for reform as the precursor of a good time coming for the suffering and toiling masses of mankind. The streets of London were illuminated, and the windows of those who omitted to illuminate or were otherwise obnoxious were tumultuously demolished by the mob, which did not even spare Apsley House, the town residence of the Duke of Wellington. But, except in Scotland, no formidable riots occurred for the present, and some good resulted from the new experience of popular opinion gained by candidates even from unreformed constituencies hitherto obedient to oligarchical influence, but animated for the moment by a certain spirit of independence.

Having sanctioned the dissolution, the king addressed an elaborate letter to Grey, in which he did not disguise his own misgivings about the perilous experiment of reform. Chiefly dreading a collision between the two houses, he never ceased to press on his ministers the expediency of making all possible sacrifices consistent with the spirit of the bill in order to conciliate opposition in the house of peers. Grey's constant reply was that no concessions would propitiate men bent on driving the government from office, and that no measure less efficacious than that already introduced would satisfy the just expectations of the people. Both of these arguments were perfectly sound, and the constitutional triumph ultimately achieved was largely due to the admirable tenacity of purpose which refused to remodel the original reform bill in any essential respect to please either the borough-mongers or the radicals. The elections were conducted on the whole in good order. Seventy-six out of eighty-two English county members (including the four Yorkshire members), and the four members for the city of London, were pledged to vote for the bill. Several notable anti-reformers were among the many county representatives who failed to obtain re-election; even some of the doomed boroughs did not venture to return anti-reformers; and the government found itself supported by an immense nominal majority. The new bill, introduced on June 24 by Lord John Russell, who had recently been admitted in company with Stanley to the cabinet, differed little from the old one. The number of boroughs to be totally disfranchised was slightly greater, that of boroughs to be partially disfranchised slightly less, but the net effect of the disfranchising and enfranchising schedules was the same, and the L10 rental suffrage was retained. The measure was allowed to pass its first reading after one night's discussion. The debates on the second reading lasted three nights, but the bill passed this stage on July 8 by a majority of 136 in a house of 598 members.

[Pageheading: SECOND REFORM BILL.]

The victory, however, though great, was far indeed from proving decisive. By adopting obstructive tactics, of a kind to be perfected in a later age, the opposition succeeded in prolonging the discussion in committee over forty nights, until September 7. Though Peel separated himself from the old tories, and steadily declined to cabal with O'Connell's faction against the government, such an unprofitable waste of time could not have taken place without his tacit sanction. Only one important alteration was made in the bill. This was the famous "Chandos clause," proposed by Lord Chandos, son of the Duke of Buckingham, whereby the county suffrage was extended to all tenants-at-will of L50 rental and upwards. A very large proportion of tenant farmers thus became county voters, and for the most part followed the politics of their landlords. It may be doubted whether Grey seriously lamented Chandos's intervention; at all events it went far to verify his own prediction that aristocratic dominion would not be undermined by reform.[104] Meanwhile, the country was naturally impatient of the vexatious delay, and a somewhat menacing conference took place between the political unions of Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow. Happily public attention was diverted to some extent by the coronation, which took place on the 8th. The bill was carried more rapidly through its later stages, and was finally passed in the house of commons on the 21st, though by a reduced majority of 345 to 236.

On the following day the bill reached the house of lords and was set down for its second reading on October 3. Thenceforth all the hopes and fears of its friends and enemies were concentrated on the proceedings in that house, whose ascendency in the state was at stake. The question: "What will the lords do?" was asked all over the country with the deepest anxiety. The debate lasted five nights, and is admitted to have been among the finest reported in our parliamentary history. All the leading peers took part in it, and several of them were roused by the occasion to unwonted eloquence, but the palm was generally awarded to the speeches of Grey, Harrowby, Brougham, and Lyndhurst. The first of these occupied a position which gave increased weight to his counsels, since he was the veteran advocate of reform and yet known to be a most loyal member of the nobility which now stood on its trial. In his opening speech he appealed earnestly to the bench of bishops, as disinterested parties and as ministers of peace, not to set themselves against the almost unanimous will of the people. Brougham's great oration on the last night of the debate contained a masterly review of the whole question, and, in spite of its theatrical conclusion, when he sank upon his knees, extorted the admiration of his bitterest critics as a consummate exhibition of his marvellous powers.

But very few of the peers were open to persuasion; the votes of anti-reformers were mainly guided by a shortsighted conception of their own interests, and Eldon did not shrink from contending that nomination boroughs were in the nature of property rather than of trusts. A memorable division ended in the rejection of the second reform bill on the 8th by 199 votes to 158. Twenty-one bishops voted against it. The king lost no time in reminding Grey of his own warning against submitting the bill, without serious modifications, to the judgment of the house of lords. He also intimated beforehand that he could not consent to any such creation of peers as would convert the minority into a majority. Grey at once admitted that he could not ask for so high-handed an exercise of the royal prerogative, and undertook to remain at his post, on condition of being allowed to introduce a third reform bill as comprehensive as its predecessor. Thereupon the king abandoned his intention of proroguing parliament by commission, and came down in person to do so on the 20th when he delivered a speech clearly indicating legislation on reform as the work of the next session.

[Pageheading: REFORM BILL RIOTS.]

During the interval between the 8th and the 20th it became evident that the reform movement, quickened by the action of the upper house, would rise to a dangerous height. A vote of confidence in the government, brought forward by Lord Ebrington, eldest son of Earl Fortescue, was carried by a majority of 131, and speeches were made in support of it which encouraged, in the form of prediction, every kind of popular agitation short of open violence. In the course of this debate Macaulay, the future historian of the English revolution, delivered one of those highly wrought orations which adorn the political literature of reform. The excitement in London was great, but kept for the most part within reasonable bounds, partly by the firm and sensible attitude of Melbourne as home secretary. The mob, however, vented its rage in window breaking and personal assaults on some prominent anti-reformers, one of whom, Lord Londonderry, was knocked off his horse by a volley of stones. In the provinces more serious disturbances broke out. At Derby the rioters actually stormed the city jail, releasing the prisoners, and were only repelled in their attack on the county jail by the fire of a military force. At Nottingham they wreaked their vengeance on the Duke of Newcastle by burning down Nottingham Castle, which belonged to him, and were proceeding to further outrages when they were overawed by a regiment of hussars. A great open-air meeting of the political union was held at Birmingham, while the bill was still before the house of lords, at which a refusal to pay taxes was openly recommended in the last resort, and votes of thanks were passed to Althorp and Russell. The former, in acknowledging it, wisely condemned such lawless proceedings; the latter unwisely made use of a phrase which gravely displeased the king: "It is impossible that the whisper of faction should prevail against the voice of a nation". Both were called to account in the house of commons for holding correspondence with an illegal association, but disclaimed any recognition of the Birmingham union as a body, and fully admitted the responsibility of the government for the maintenance of order.

This assurance was about to be tested by the most atrocious outbreak which disgraced the cause of reform. On Saturday, the 29th, Wetherell, as recorder of Bristol, entered the city to open the commission on the following Monday. Of all the anti-reformers, he was perhaps the most vehement and unpopular, but his visit to Bristol was in discharge of an official duty, and had been sanctioned expressly by the government. Nevertheless, the cavalcade which escorted him was assailed by a furious rabble on its way to the guildhall, and from the guildhall to the mansion house, where he was to dine. For a while, they were kept back or driven back by a large force of constables, but, on some of these being withdrawn, their ferocity increased, and threatened a general assault on the mansion house. In vain did the mayor address them and read the riot act; they overpowered the constables, and carried the mansion house by storm, the mayor and the magistrates escaping by the back premises, while the recorder prudently left the city. At last the military were called upon to act, and two troops of cavalry were ordered out. But the military as well as the civil authorities showed a strange weakness and vacillation in presence of an emergency only to be compared with the Lord George Gordon riots of a by-gone generation. After making one charge and dispersing the populace for the moment, the cavalry were sent back to their barracks, and when one troop was recalled on the following (Sunday) morning, the rioters were all but masters of the city. Many of them, having plundered the cellars of the mansion house, were infuriated by drink; they broke into the Bridewell, the new city jail, and the county jail, set free the prisoners, and fired the buildings. They next proceeded to burn down the mansion house, the bishop's palace, the custom-house, and the excise-office. The cathedral is said to have been saved by the resolute stand of a few volunteers hastily rallied by one of the officials. In the midst of all this havoc, the cavalry were almost passive, Colonel Brereton, the commanding officer, waiting for orders from the magistrates, and actually withdrawing a part of his small force when it was most needed, because it had incurred the special hatred of the criminals.

On the morning of Monday, the guardians of law and order seemed to have recovered their courage; at all events, the cavalry, no longer forbidden to charge, and headed by Major Mackworth, soon cleared the streets, fresh troops poured in, and the police made a number of arrests. The reign of anarchy was at an end, having lasted three days. When a return of casualties was made up, it showed that only twelve were known to have lost their lives, besides ninety-four disabled, most of whom were the victims of excessive drunkenness or of the flames kindled by themselves. But, though the riot was quelled, it was some proof of its deliberate promotion, and of the aims which its ringleaders had in view, that parties of them issuing out from Bristol attempted to propagate sedition in Somersetshire. A special commission sent down to Bristol condemned to death several of the worst malefactors; four were hanged and eighty-eight sentenced either to transportation or to lighter punishments; and Colonel Brereton destroyed himself rather than face the verdict of a court-martial.

On the same Monday, the 31st, Burdett took the chair at a meeting in Lincoln's Inn Fields, called for the purpose of forming a "National Political Union" in London. Soon afterwards, however, he retired from the organisation, on the nominal ground that half of the seats on its council were allotted to the working classes, but more probably because he was beginning to be alarmed by the violence of his associates. His fears were justified by a manifesto summoning a mass meeting of the working-classes to assemble at White Conduit House on November 7, for the purpose of ratifying a new and revolutionary bill of rights. This time the government was on its guard, and Melbourne plainly informed a working-class deputation that such a meeting would certainly be seditious, and perhaps treasonable, in law. The plan was therefore abandoned, and soon afterwards a royal proclamation was issued, declaring organised political associations, assuming powers independent of the civil magistrates, to be "unconstitutional and illegal". The political unions proposed to consider themselves outside the scope of the proclamation, which had little visible effect, though it was not without its value as proving that the government was a champion of order as well as of liberty.


During the short recess of less than six weeks political discontent, constantly growing, was aggravated by industrial distress and gloomy forebodings of a mysterious pestilence, already known as cholera. A voluminous correspondence was carried on between the king and Grey on the means of silencing the political unions and smoothing the passage of a new reform bill. It was not in the king's nature to conceal his own conservative leanings, especially on the imaginary danger of increasing the metropolitan constituencies, and Grey complained more than once of these sentiments being confided, or at least becoming known, to opponents of the government. At the same time attempts were being made not only by the king himself, but also by peers of moderate views to arrange a compromise which might save the honour of the government, and yet mitigate the hostility of the tory majority in the upper house. In these negotiations behind the scenes, Howley, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Carr, Bishop of Worcester, took part, as representing the episcopal bench, while Lords Harrowby and Wharncliffe, in temporary concert with Chandos, professed to speak for the "waverers" among peers. As little of importance resulted from their well-meant efforts, and as nearly all the supposed "waverers," including the bishops, drifted into open opposition, it is the less necessary to dwell at length on a very tedious chapter in the history of parliamentary reform. Suffice it to say that when parliament reassembled on December 6, 1831, the prospects of the forthcoming bill were no brighter than in October, except so far as the danger of rejecting it had become more apparent.

The final reform bill introduced by Lord John Russell on the 12th was identical in its principle and its essential features with the former ones. The chief alteration was the maintenance of the house of commons at its full strength of 658 members. This enabled its framers not only to reduce the number of wholly disfranchised boroughs (schedule A) from sixty to fifty-six, and that of semi-disfranchised boroughs (schedule B) from forty-six to thirty, but to assign a larger number of members to the prosperous towns enfranchised. The bill was at once read a first time and passed its second reading after two nights' debate on the 16th by a majority of 324 to 162, or exactly two to one. But, after a short adjournment for the Christmas holidays, a debate of twenty-two nights took place in committee, and the opposition made skilful use of the many vulnerable points in the new scheme. Every variation from the original bill, even by way of concession, was subjected to minute criticism, and especially the fact that the schedules were now framed, not on a scale of population only, but on a mixed basis, partly resting on population, partly on the number of inhabited houses, and partly on the local contribution to assessed taxes.

It was easy to pick such a compound scale to pieces, to uphold the claims of one venal borough against another equally venal, and even to reproach the government with inconsistency in relying on the census of 1831, instead of on that of 1821—a course which the opposition had specially urged upon them. But it was not so easy to combat the irresistible arguments in favour of the bill on its general merits, to ignore the reasonable concessions on points of detail which it embodied, or to explain away the patent fact that no measure less stringent would satisfy the people. There was therefore an air of unreality about this debate, spirited as it was, nor is it easy to understand what practical object enlightened men like Peel could have sought in prolonging it. He well knew, and admitted in private correspondence, that reform was inevitable; he must have known that a sham reform would be a stimulus to revolutionary agitation; yet he strove to mutilate the bill so that it might pass its second reading in the house of lords, and there undergo such further mutilation as would destroy its efficacy as a settlement of the question. For the present he yielded. No attempt was made to obstruct the bill on its third reading, when the division showed 355 votes to 239, and it passed the commons on March 23 without any division.


Such a result would have been conclusive in any parliament during the second half of the nineteenth century. A house of commons elected by the old constituencies, and under the old franchises, had declared in favour of a well-considered reform bill. The same constituencies voting under the same franchises had returned an increased majority in support of the same, or very nearly the same measure; this measure, with slight variations, had been adopted by an immense preponderance of votes in the new house of commons: yet its fate in the house of lords was very doubtful. Ever since the autumn of 1831, the expedient of swamping the house of lords had been seriously contemplated. It was supremely distasteful to the king, and Grey himself, in common with a majority of the cabinet, was strongly averse from it. Then came the intervention of Harrowby and Wharncliffe, the failure of which strengthened the hands of the more determined reformers in the cabinet, and induced the king to give way. Having already created a few peers on the coronation, he consented to a limited addition in the last resort, but with the reservation that eldest sons of existing peers should be called up in the first instance, and upon the assurance that, reform once carried, all further encroachments of the democracy should be resisted by the government. He even authorised Grey to inform Harrowby that he had given the prime minister this power, in the hope that it would never be needed, and that at least the second reading of the bill would be carried in the house of lords without it. His objection to a permanent augmentation of the peerage remained unshaken, and Grey promised to propose no augmentation at all before the second reading.

This compact, if it can be so called, was fulfilled in the letter, for the bill was read a first time without a division, and it passed the second reading on April 14 by a majority of 184 to 175. To all appearance a notable process of conversion had been wrought among the peers, seventeen of whom actually changed sides, while ten opponents of the former bill absented themselves, and twelve new adherents were gained. However encouraging these figures might be, the ministers were under no illusion. They had the best reason for expecting the worst from the struggle in committee, and they were conscious of gradually losing the king's confidence. The very demonstrations of popular enthusiasm for reform which impressed others with a sense of its necessity impressed him with a sense of its danger; the political unions and the Bristol riots alarmed him extremely; and the foreign policy of the government elicited from him so outspoken a protest that Grey tendered his resignation. The difficulty was overcome for the moment, but recurred in a more serious form when parliament reassembled on May 7. Lyndhurst at once proposed in committee to postpone the consideration of schedule A; in other words, to shelve the most vital provisions of the bill until the rest should have been dissected in a hostile spirit. This proposal is supposed to have been concerted with Harrowby and Wharncliffe, if not to have received the sanction of the Duke of Wellington. It was adopted by 151 votes to 116, and the cabinet, on May 8, courageously determined to make a decisive stand. They firmly advised the king to confer peerages on "such a number of persons as might ensure the success of the bill". The principle thus expressed had, as has been seen, been reluctantly approved by the king himself, but he recoiled from the application of it when he learned that it would involve at least fifty new creations. After a day's thought, he closed with the only alternative, and accepted the resignation of his ministry. He then sent for Lyndhurst, who of course at once communicated with the duke.

The king, as we have seen, had never been able to understand the real force of the reform movement, and his leading idea was that the demand for reform might be satisfied by a moderate reform bill, which the house of lords would not reject or reduce to nullity. Wellington shared this impression, and, though an implacable opponent of reform, was willing to undertake office for the purpose of carrying, not merely a mild substitute for the whig reform bill, but the whig reform bill itself with little modification. Such an act might appear immoral in a statesman whose integrity was more open to question, but the duke's political moral appears to have been of a less delicate type than that which is commonly expected in party politicians. As a general, he considered, first of all and above all, what manoeuvres would best advance his plan of campaign. As a political leader, he regarded himself not as the chief of a party, still less as the exponent of a creed, but rather as a public servant to whom his followers owed allegiance, whether in office or in opposition. As a public servant he felt bound to obey the king's summons, and conduct the administration, honestly and efficiently, but without much concern for personal convictions. He was also anxious to preserve the house of lords from being swamped and so rendered ridiculous by an extensive creation of peers.[105]


But Wellington knew that he was powerless to manage the house of commons without the aid of Peel, and Peel, though pliable in the case of catholic emancipation, was inflexible in the case of reform. He drew a distinction between these cases, and absolutely rejected the advice of Croker that he should grasp the helm of state to avert the worse evil of the whigs being recalled. "I look," he wrote, "beyond the exigency and the peril of the present moment, and I do believe that one of the greatest calamities that could befall the country would be the utter want of confidence in the declarations of public men which must follow the adoption of the bill of reform by me as a minister of the crown."[106] This language, repeated under reserve in the house of commons, after a direct appeal from the king, strongly contrasts with that of the duke who roundly asserted that he should have been ashamed to show his face in the streets if he had refused to serve his sovereign in an emergency. The marked divergence of views and conduct between the two leaders of the conservative party led to a temporary estrangement which materially weakened their counsels, and was not finally removed until a fresh crisis arose two years later.

While Lyndhurst and the duke were vainly endeavouring to patch up a government without Peel or his personal adherents, Goulburn and Croker, the house of commons and the country gave decisive proofs of their resolution. A vote of confidence in Grey's ministry, proposed by Ebrington, was carried on May 10 by a majority of eighty. Petitions came in from the city of London and Manchester, calling upon the commons to stop the supplies, and the reckless populace clamoured for a run upon the Bank of England. A mass meeting convened by the Birmingham political union had already hoisted the standard of revolt against the legislature, unless it would comply with the will of the people; the example was spreading rapidly, and events seemed to be hurrying on towards a fulfilment of Russell's prediction that, in the event of a political deadlock, the British constitution would perish in the conflict. The duke was credited, of course unjustly, with the intention of establishing military rule, and doubts were freely expressed whether he could rely either on the army or on the police to put down insurgent mobs. The excitement in the house of commons itself was scarcely less formidable, and it soon became evident that high tories were almost as much incensed by the prospect of a tory reform bill as radicals and whigs by the vote on Lyndhurst's amendment.

On the 14th Manners Sutton and Alexander Baring, Lyndhurst's trusted confidants, plainly informed the duke that his self-imposed task was hopeless, and on the next day the duke advised the king to recall Grey. The king, who had apparently grasped the position earlier, acquiesced in this solution of the question. He agreed to recall Grey and his colleagues, and to use his own personal influence in persuading tory peers to abstain from voting. He attempted to impose upon his old ministers the condition of modifying the bill considerably, but they continued to insist on maintaining its integrity, and on swamping the upper house, unless its opposition should be withdrawn. It was, happily, unnecessary to resort to such extreme measures. A letter from the king, dated the 17th, informed Wellington that all difficulties would be removed by "a declaration in the house of lords from a sufficient number of peers that they have come to the resolution of dropping their further opposition to the reform bill". On that night, after stating what had passed, the duke retired from the house, followed by about 100 peers, and absented himself from the discussion of the bill in committee. A stalwart minority remained, and took issue on a few clauses, but their numbers constantly dwindled, and when the report was received on June 1 only eighteen peers recorded their dissent in a protest. Grey himself, though suffering from illness, moved the third reading on the 4th, when it was carried by 106 to 22. His last words did not lack the dignity which had marked his bearing throughout, and expressed the earnest hope that, in spite of sinister forebodings, "the measure would be found to be, in the best sense, conservative of the constitution".


The amendments made in the house of lords were slight, and the house of commons adopted them without any argument on their merits. Peel, who had made a convincing defence of his recent conduct, and who afterwards took a statesmanlike course in the reformed parliament, declared, with some petulance, that he would have nothing to do with the consideration of provisions or amendments passed under compulsion, and that he was prepared to accept them, en bloc, whatever their nature or consequences. The bill, therefore, received the royal assent on the 7th, but the king could not be induced to perform this ceremony in person. Though his scruples had been respected in framing the scheme of reform, though he was consulted at every turn and clearly recognised the necessity to which he bowed, and though he was spared the resort to a coup d'etat which he abhorred, he could not but feel humiliated by the ill-disguised subjection of the crown and the nobility to a single chamber of the people. It is greatly to his honour that, with limited intelligence, and strong prejudices, he should have played a straightforward and strictly constitutional part in so perilous a crisis.

By the great reform bill, as it was still called even after it became an act, the whole representative system of England and Wales was reconstructed. Fifty-six nomination boroughs, as we have seen, lost their members altogether; thirty more were reduced to one member, and Weymouth which, coupled with Melcombe Regis, had returned four members, now lost two. Twenty-two large towns, including metropolitan districts, were allotted two members each; twenty smaller but considerable towns received one member each; the number of English and Welsh county members was increased from ninety-four to one hundred and fifty-nine, and the larger counties were parcelled out into divisions. All the fanciful and antiquated franchises which had prevailed in the older boroughs were swept away to make room for a levelling L10 household suffrage, the privileges of freemen being alone preserved. The rights of 40s. freeholders were retained in counties, but they found themselves associated with a large body of copyholders, leaseholders, and tenants-at-will paying L50 in rent. The general result was to place the borough representation mainly in the hands of shopkeepers, and the county representation mainly in those of landlords and farmers. The former change had a far greater effect on the balance of parties than the latter. The shopkeepers, of whom many were nonconformists, long continued to cherish advanced radical traditions, partly derived from the reform agitation, and constantly rebelled against dictation from their rich customers. The farmers, dependent on their landlords and closely allied with them in defending the corn laws, proved more submissive to influence, and constituted the backbone of the great agricultural interest.

The enactment of the English reform bill carried with it as its necessary sequel the success of similar bills for Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland electoral abuses were so gross that reform was comparatively simple, and that proposed, as Jeffrey, the lord advocate, frankly said, "left not a shred of the former system". The nation, as a whole, gained eight members, since its total representation was raised from forty-five to fifty-three seats, thirty for counties and twenty-three for cities and burghs. Two members were allotted to Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively; one each to Paisley, Aberdeen, Perth, Dundee, and Greenock, as well as to certain groups of boroughs. Both the county and burgh electorates were entirely transformed. The "old parchment freeholders" in counties, many of whom owned not a foot of land, were superseded by a mixed body of freeholders and leaseholders with real though various qualifications. The electoral monopoly of town councils was replaced by the enfranchisement of householders with a uniform qualification of L10. A claim to representation on behalf of the Scottish universities was negatived in the house of lords. The number of representatives for Ireland was raised from 100 to 105. The disfranchisement of the 40s. freeholders was maintained against the strenuous attacks of O'Connell and Sheil, but the introduction of the L10 borough franchise amply balanced the loss of democratic influence in counties. On the whole the transfer of power from class to class was greater in Scotland and Ireland than in England itself, and in Ireland this signified a corresponding transfer of power from protestants to catholics. The rule of the priests was almost as absolute as ever until it was checked for a while by a purely democratic movement, and the Irish vote in the house of commons was generally cast on the radical side.


A calm retrospect of the reform movement, culminating in the acts of 1832, compels us to see how little the course of politics is guided by reason, and how much by circumstances. Every argument employed in that and the preceding year possessed equal force at the end of the eighteenth century, and the benefits of reform might have been obtained at a much smaller cost of domestic strife; nor can we doubt that, but for the French revolution, these arguments would have prevailed. Whether or not the sanguinary disruption of French society furthered the cause of progress on the continent, it assuredly threw back that cause in Great Britain for more than a generation. Not only did its horrors and enormities produce a reaction which paralysed the efforts of liberals in this country, but the wars arising out of it engrossed for twenty years the whole energy of the nation. Had it been possible for Pitt to pass a reform bill after carrying the Irish union, the current of English history would have been strangely diverted. The sublime tenacity of that proud aristocracy which defied the French empire in arms, and nerved all the rest of Europe by its example and its subsidies, would never have been exhibited by a democratic or middle class parliament, and it is more than probable that Great Britain would have stood neutral while the continent was enslaved or worked out its own salvation. On the other hand, in such a case, Great Britain might have been spared a great part of the misery and discontent which, following the peace, but indirectly caused by the war, actually paved the way for the reform movement. It remained for a second French revolution, combined with the infatuation of English tories, to supply the motive power which converted a party cry into a national demand for justice. The reform act was, in truth, a completion of the earlier English revolution provoked by the Stuarts. Considering the condition of the people before its introduction, and the obstinacy of the resistance to be overborne, we may well marvel that it was carried, after all, so peacefully, and must ever remember it as a signal triumph of whig statesmanship.

It was the crowning merit of the reform act, from a whig point of view, that it stayed the rising tide of democracy, and raised a barrier against household suffrage and the ballot which was not broken down for a generation more. It put an end to an oligarchy of borough-owners and borough-mongers; it was a charter of political rights for the manufacturing interest and the great middle class. But it did nothing for the working classes in town or country; indeed, by the abolition of potwallopers and scot-and-lot voters in a few boroughs, they forfeited such fragmentary representation as they had possessed. Hence the seeds of chartism, already sown, were quickened in 1832; but socialism was not yet a force in politics, and it was still hoped that, under the new electoral system, the sufferings of the poor might be mostly remedied by act of parliament. The effect of the reform act on the balance of the constitution was not, at first, fully appreciated. The grievance of nomination-boroughs had been all but completely redressed, and that of political corruption greatly diminished, but the hereditary peerage remained, and the right of the lords to override the will of the commons had ostensibly survived the conflict of 1831-32. But far-sighted men could not fail to perceive that, in fact, the upper house was no longer a co-ordinate estate of the realm. The peers retained an indefinite power of delaying a measure, but it soon came to be a received maxim that on a measure of primary importance such a power could only be exercised in order to give the commons an opportunity of reconsideration or to force an appeal to the country at a general election, and that a new house of commons, armed with a mandate to carry that measure, though once rejected by the peers, could not be resisted except at the risk of revolution.

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