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Chapter XI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7


Dissolution of Parliament - The General Election - The Irish Landlords and the Irish Priests - The Forty Shilling Freeholders - Anti-Catholic Feeling in England - The New Parliament - Bubble Companies and the House of Commons - Illness of the Duke of York - The Expedition to Portugal; Canning's Speech on the Subject - Death of the Duke of York; his Character; Attack upon his Character by Mr. Sheil - The Duke's Funeral - The Royal Vault at Windsor - Death and Character of Lord Liverpool - Mr. Canning Prime Minister - Factious Opposition of the Tory Lords; not shared by Peel - Aristocratic Combination against Genius and Personal Merit - The Whig Peers stand by their Order - The Position of Canning; his Health gives way, and he succumbs to Aristocratic Persecution; his Death.
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Parliament was prorogued on the 31st of May, 1826, and two days after dissolved. It had nearly run its course. It was the sixth session, which had been abridged with a view of getting through the general election at a convenient season. But though the session was short, it had a great deal of work to show of one kind or another, including some useful legislation. The parliamentary papers printed occupied twenty-nine folio volumes, exclusive of the journals and votes. The parliament whose existence was now terminated had, indeed, effected the most important changes in the policy of this country, foreign and domestic. Mr. Canning had severed the connection, unnatural as it was damaging, between England and the Holy Alliance. The government of the freest country in the world, presenting almost the only example of a constitution in which the power of the people was represented, was no longer to be associated in the councils of a conclave of despots; and this change of direction in our foreign policy was cordially adopted by the house of commons and by the nation. Another great and vital change in our national policy was the partial admission of the principles of free trade, which the tories regarded, not without reason, as effecting a complete revolution, which extended its influence to the whole of our legislation and government.

In one respect the general election happened at an unseasonable time. It was the driest and warmest summer on record. On the 28th of June, the hottest day in the year, the thermometer stood at eighty-nine and a half degrees in the shade. Several deaths were occasioned by sun-stroke; among the victims were a son of earl Grey and Mr. Butterworth, the eminent law bookseller, a candidate for Dover. The elections were carried on in many places with great spirit. But, though there were exciting contests, the struggles were not for parties, but for measures. There were three great questions at issue before the nation, and with respect to these pledges were exacted. The principal were the corn laws, catholic emancipation, and the slave trade. In England and Wales one hundred and thirty- three members were returned who had never before sat in parliament. This large infusion of new blood showed that the constituencies were in earnest. In Ireland the contests turned chiefly on the catholic question. Wherever the Roman catholics had a majority of votes there was a fierce struggle between the priests and the landlords. The organisation of the Catholic Association told now with tremendous effect. In every parish the populace were so excited by inflammatory harangues, delivered in the chapel on Sundays, after public worship, both by priests and laymen - the altar being converted into a platform - that irresistible pressure was brought to bear upon the Roman catholic electors. The " forty shilling freeholders" had been multiplied to an enormous extent by the land-, lords for electioneering purposes. Roman catholic candidates being out of the question, and the tory interest predominant in Ireland, electioneering contests had been hitherto in reality less political than personal. They had been contests for pre-eminence between great rival families; consequently, farms were cut up into small holdings, because a cabin and a potato garden gave a man who was little better than a pauper an interest which he could swear was to him worth forty shillings a-year. The protestant landlords who pursued this selfish course little dreamt that the political power they thus created would be turned, with terrible effect, against themselves; and they could scarcely realise their position when, in county after county, they were driven from the representation, which some of them regarded as an inheritance almost as secure as their estates. The most powerful family in Ireland, and the most influential in the government, was that of the Beresfords, whose principal estates lay in the county Waterford, and where no one would imagine that their candidate could be opposed with the least prospect of success. But on this occasion they suffered a signal defeat. The forty shilling freeholders, as well as the bettor class of Roman catholic farmers, were so excited by the contest that they went almost to a man against their landlords. In many cases they had got their holdings at low rents on the express condition that their vote should be at the disposal of the landlord. But all such obligations were given to the winds. They followed their priests from every parish to the hustings, surrounded and driven forward by a mass of non-electors armed with sticks and shouting for their church and their country. O'Connell was now in his glory, everywhere directing the storm which he had raised. When the contest was over, many of the landlords retaliated by evicting the tenants who had betrayed their trust and forfeited their pledges. They were tauntingly told that they might go for the means of living to O'Connell and the priests. This was a new ingredient in the caldron of popular discontent, disaffection, and agrarian crime. The gain of the catholic party in Ireland, however, was more than counterbalanced by the gain of the opposite party in England and Scotland.

The new parliament met on the 14th of November. Mr. Manners Sutton was re-elected speaker. A week was spent in the swearing-in of members, and on the 21st the session was opened by the king in person. In the royal speech allusion was made to the throwing open of the ports for the admission of foreign grain, and the distress that had visited the manufacturing districts. The address was carried in the upper house without a division, and ill the lower house an amendment, moved by Mr. Hume, found only twenty-four supporters.

On the 5th of December alderman Waithman moved for a committee of inquiry with reference to the part taken by members of parliament in the joint stock mania of 1824-5-6. He stated that within the last three years six hundred joint stock companies had been formed, most of them for dishonest purposes. The directors of these fraudulent schemes worked with the market as they pleased, forcing up the prices of shares to sell, and depressing them to buy, pocketing the difference. He dwelt particularly on the Arignon Mining Company, of which the late chairman of the committee of ways and means, Mr. Brogden, had been a director. The directors of this company, besides an allowance of three guineas per day for the use of their names, had divided between them a large surplus, arising from traffic in shares. Other members of the house, he alleged, had enriched themselves by bubble companies, particularly Sir William Congreve. At the suggestion of Mr. Canning, the inquiry was restricted to the Arignon Company. A vast amount of loss and suffering had been inflicted by those bubble companies. A check was given to the steady and healthful progress of the country by the fever of excitement, followed by a sudden and terrible collapse. Healthful commerce was blighted, and one of the worst results of the revulsion was, that it not only swept away the delusive projects of adventurers, but paralysed for a season the operations of legitimate enterprise. The commercial atmosphere, however, had been cleared by the monetary crisis of 1825-6. An extensive decomposition of commercial elements was effected. Masses of fictitious property were dispersed, and much of the real capital of the country was distributed in new and safe channels, which caused the year 1827 to open with more cheering prospects.

The duke of York did not long survive his vehement declaration against the concession of the catholic claims. His vow that he would never permit the emancipation to take place, whatever might be his future position - alluding to his probable accession to the throne - greatly embittered the feelings of the Irish Roman catholics against him. His disease was dropsy, and Mr. Sheil, at a public dinner, jeeringly referred to the " rotundity of his configuration." Mr. O'Connell, with equally bad taste, exulted in the prospect of his dissolution, and said, " I wish no physical ill to the royal duke; but if he has thrown his oath in the way of our liberties, and that, as long as he lives, justice shall not be done to the people of Ireland, it is a mockery to tell me that the people of Ireland have not an interest in his ceasing to live. Death is the correcter of human errors; it is said to be man's hour for repentance, and God's opportunity. If the royal duke should not become converted from his political errors, I am perfectly resigned to the will of God, and shall abide the result with the most Christian resignation." The duke's bodily sufferings increased very much towards the end of the year, and in December the disease manifested the most alarming symptoms. He continued to the last to discharge his duties as commander-in-chief. His professional zeal flashed out even on his death-bed. At a time when his breathing was so oppressed that it was necessary to support him with pillows in an upright position, he personally gave all the orders, and directed all the arrangements, for the expedition which left England in the middle of December, when the peace of Europe was in imminent danger from the threatened invasion of Portugal. Notwithstanding his dislike to Canning, in consequence of their difference on the catholic question, he co-operated with him in this matter with an earnestness and vigour which the duke of Wellington himself could not have surpassed. The occasion for the expedition arose in this way: bands of Portuguese rebels, armed, equipped, and trained in Spain, at the instigation of France, passed the Spanish frontier, carrying terror and devastation into their own country, crossing the boundary at different points, and proclaiming different pretenders to the throne of Portugal. Had Spain employed mercenaries to effect the invasion, there could not be a doubt of its hostile character. Portugal then enjoyed a constitutional government, under the regency of the infant daughter of the king of Brazil. The absolutist party had proclaimed Don Miguel, the king of Brazil's younger brother. During the civil war the rebels had been driven into Spain, where they were welcomed with ardour, equipped afresh, and sent back to maintain the cause of absolutism in the Portuguese dominions. England was bound by treaty to assist Portugal in any such emergency, lier aid was demanded accordingly, and, averse as Mr. Canning was to war, and to intervention in the affairs of foreign states, he rendered the assistance required with the utmost promptitude. On Friday, December 3rd, the Portuguese ambassador made a formal demand of assistance against a hostile aggression from Spain. Canning answered that, though he had heard rumours to that effect, he had not yet received such precise information as justified him in applying to parliament. It was only on Friday that that information arrived. On Saturday the cabinet came to a decision; on Sunday the decision received the sanction of the king; on Monday it was communicated to both houses of parliament, and on Tuesday the troops were on their march for embarkation. The expedition arrived at Lisbon in good time, and had the desired effect of restoring tranquillity and preventing war - that " war of opinions " which Canning so much dreaded. It was on this occasion that Canning delivered the magnificent oration which electrified the house and the country. No speech in parliament had ever before produced such an effect. Only a man of splendid genius and intense sympathy, placed in a position to wield the force of a great nation, could have delivered such a speech, or produced such an effect. "The situation of England," he said, "amidst the struggle of political opinions which agitates more or less sensibly different countries of the world, may be compared to that of the ruler of the winds -

'Celsa sedet AEolus arce,
Sceptra tenens; mollitque animos et temperat iras
Ni faciat maria ac terras coelumque profundum,
Quippe ferant rapidi secum, verrantque per auras.'

The consequence of letting loose the passions at present chained and confined would be to produce a scene of desolation which no man can contemplate without horror, and I would not sleep easy on my couch if I were conscious that I had contributed to accelerate it by a single moment. This is the reason why I dread the recurrence of hostilities in any part of Europe; why I would forbear long on any point which did not taint the national honour, ere I let slip the dogs of war, the leash of which we hold in our hands, not knowing whom they may reach, or how far their ravages may be carried. Such is the love of peace which the British government acknowledges, and such the necessity for peace which the circumstances of the world inculcate. Let us fly to the aid of Portugal, because it is our duty to do so; and let us cease our interference when that duty ends. We go to Portugal not to rule, not to dictate, not to prescribe constitutions, but to defend and preserve the independence of an ally. We go to plant the standard of England on the well-known heights of Lisbon. Where that standard is planted, foreign dominion shall not come."

The house received this speech with tumultuous applause, and refused to listen to the objections that Mr. Hume and others wished to urge against the expedition, on the score of economy. In the upper house also the government was sustained by an overwhelming majority. The expedition, consisting of six thousand men, received orders to march on the 11th of December, and began to land in Lisbon on Christmas Day. The incursions from Spain immediately ceased, and France, which had instigated and secretly encouraged the movement, now found it prudent to disclaim all connection with it. Before eighteen months had elapsed the troops had returned; " and this affair passed over," remarks Sir Archibald Alison, " with no other result but that of rendering Mr. Canning the idol of the liberal party throughout the world, and demonstrating to the astonished nations the elements of war, which, amidst all their pacific interests, slumbered in the breasts of the British people. "

The duke of York grew rapidly worse, and he felt conscious that his end was approaching. On the 28th of December he received the sacrament, along with his sister, the princess Sophia, at the hands of the bishop of London. On the next day he received a parting visit from the king, and on the 5th of January he expired. He was in the sixty-fourth year of his age, and had been at the head of the army for more than thirty-two years. His sincerity and affability, his punctual attention to the discharge of his official duties, and his endeavours to improve the condition of the army in every respect, made him highly popular. During his administration at the Horse Guards, he got the credit of having almost created the British army, and obtained the reputation of being the soldier's friend. The duke was large in person, and manly in his bearing. He strikingly resembled George III. in appearance, and inherited in some degree his rapid mode of speaking. He inherited, also, his father's principles and prejudices; but differed from him widely in his unrestrained love of pleasure, and his addiction to gambling. He was a great favourite with the tory party, to which he more than ever endeared himself by his declaration against catholic emancipation. Early in life he served in the campaign in Flanders, where he acquired the experience which enabled him, as commander-in-chief, to sympathise with the soldier in his hardships and privations. He had, no doubt, many amiable and estimable qualities, which secured the attachment of friends. Generous to a fault, profuse in his liberality, he became deeply involved in debt«, The conservative historian touches lightly on his " irregularities of another kind, the frequent accompaniment of exalted rank, and. an ardent disposition;" and these, he observes, "were fastened on, during one memorable investigation, by the combined forces of scandal and faction, with such intensity as rendered his temporary retirement from office a matter of necessity. But he was soon restored to it with the unanimous approbation of the nation, which, however frequently overborne for a time, by the vehemence of party, or the clamour of the press, is rarely in the end unjust in the estimate of private character, or ungrateful for public services."

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Pictures for Chapter XI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7

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