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


Difficulties of the Government - Distress of the Silk-weavers - Destructive Outrages - The Game Laws - Prorogation of Parliament - The Royal Speech - Condition of Portugal - State of Parties - Disturbances in Ireland - The Meeting of Parliament - National Distress - Breaking up of the Tory Party - Position of the Duke of Wellington - Financial Reform - The Currency - Remission of Taxes - Press Prosecutions - The King's Habits of Seclusion; his Illness; his Last Moments; his Death; his Character; his Patronage of the Fine Arts - Social Progress during the Past Reign - Religious Equality and Free Trade.
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The success of the duke of Wellington in carrying emancipation was fatal to his government. Almost to a man the tories fell from him, and he found no compensation in the adherence of the whigs. The latter were glad that their opponents had been induced to settle the question, a result which they had long desired, but had not the power to accomplish. Their gratitude, however, for this great service to the public was not sufficiently warm to induce them to enlist under the banner of the duke of Wellington, though they were ready to come to his assistance, to protect his government for a time against the violent assaults of the party whose feelings and prejudices he had so grievously outraged. All parties seem, indeed, to have been exhausted by the violence of the struggle, and there was no desire to attempt anything important in the way of legislation during the remainder of the session. There was nothing extraordinary in the budget, audit was accepted without much objection. The subject of distress among the operatives gave rise to a debate which occupied two days, and a motion for inquiry into its causes was rejected. The trade which suffered most at the time was the silk trade. It was stated that, in 1824, there were 17,000 looms employed in Spitalfields; now there were only 9,000. At the former period wages averaged seventeen shillings a week, now the average was reduced to nine shillings. By the manufacturers this depression was ascribed to the relaxation of the prohibitory system, and the admission of foreign silks into the home market. On the other hand, ministers, and the advocates of free trade, ascribed the depression to the increase of production, and the rivalry of the provincial towns of Congleton, Macclesfield, and Manchester. That the general trade had increased was shown by the vast increase in the quantity of raw silk imported, and in the number of spindles employed in the silk manufacture. The government was firm in its hostility to the prohibitory system, and would not listen to any suggestion for relief, except a reduction in the duties on the importation of raw silk, by which the demand for the manufactured article might be augmented. While these discussions were going on in parliament, the silk- weavers were in a state of violent agitation, and their discontent broke forth in acts of lawlessness and destructive outrage. They were undoubtedly in a very miserable condition. It was ascertained that there were at Huddersfield 13,000 persons occupied in a fancy trade, whose average earnings did not exceed twopence-halfpenny a day, out of which they had to meet the wear and tear of looms, &c. The artisans ascribed this reduction to the avarice of their employers, and they avenged themselves, as was usual in those times, by combination, strikes, and destruction of property. In Spitalfields, bands of weavers entered the workshops, and cut up the materials belonging to refractory masters. The webs in thirty or forty looms were sometimes thus destroyed in a single night. The same course was pursued at Macclesfield, Coventry, Nuneaton, and Bedworth, in which towns power-looms had been introduced which enabled one man to do the work of four. The reign of terror extended to Yorkshire, and in several places the masters were compelled to succumb, and to accept a list of prices imposed by the operatives. In this way the distress was greatly aggravated by their ignorance. What they demanded was a restrictive system, which it was impossible to restore. The result obtained was simply a reduction of the duties on raw silk.

An attempt was made during the session to mitigate the evils of the game laws, and a bill for legalising the sale of game passed the commons with extraordinary unanimity. In the house of lords the bill met with determined opposition. In vain lord Wharncliffe demonstrated the demoralising and disorganising effects of the game laws. Lord Westmoreland was shocked at a measure which he declared would depopulate the country of gentlemen. He could not endure such a gross violation of the liberty of the aristocratic portion of the king's subjects; and he thought the guardians of the constitution in the house of commons must have been asleep when they allowed such a measure to pass. Lord Eldon, too, who was passionately fond of shooting, had his conservative instincts aroused almost as much by the proposal to abolish the monopoly of killing hares and pheasants, as by the measure for admitting Roman catholics into parliament. The bill was read a second time, by a majority of ten; but more strenuous exertions were called forth by the division, and the third reading of this bill to mitigate an iniquitous system was rejected by a majority of two. Lord Eldon's familiarity with the principles of equity did not enable him to see the wrong of inflicting damage to the amount of 500,000 a year on the tenant farmers of the country, by the depredations of wild animals, which they were not permitted to kill, and for the destruction caused by which they received no compensation.

On the 24th of June parliament was prorogued by commission. The royal speech expressed thanks for the attention that had been given to the affairs of Ireland, and the settlement of the catholic question, which the king hoped would tend to the permanent tranquillity of that country, and to draw closer the bonds of union between it and the rest of the empire. It was announced that diplomatic relations had been renewed with the Porte, for which ambassadors from England and France had taken their departure. But it was with increased regret that his majesty again adverted to the condition of the Portuguese monarchy. He repeated his determination to use every effort to reconcile conflicting interests, and to remove the evils which pressed so heavily on a country the prosperity of which must ever be an object of his solicitude. The condition of that country was, indeed, most deplorable under the lawless despotism of Dom Miguel, who, on the abdication of his brother Dom Pedro in favour of Dona Maria da Gloria, had been appointed regent, but had subsequently assumed the royal title, and driven his niece from the country. He overruled the decisions of the courts of justice regarding political prisoners, and inflicted the punishment of death by his own mere arbitrary order, when only transportation had been decreed by the judges. He crowded the prisons with the most distinguished supporters of constitutional government, confiscated their property, and appropriated it to his own use. So furious was his temper that on one occasion his sister, the late regent, was on the point of being murdered by him with his own hand. Suspecting her of having sent a servant to England with money and jewels, in order to save them from his rapacity, he rushed armed into her chamber, and questioned her upon the subject. She did not reply, and he attempted to stab her with a bayonet, which he had fixed upon a pistol. Evading the thrust, she grappled with the sanguinary tyrant, and threw him down. He sprang up to renew the attack, but her chamberlain, hearing the noise, rushed to her protection, and was stabbed in the arm by the usurper, who then fired at the princess, the shot which was aimed at her killing a servant who stood by her side. Yet we are assured that this monster would have been acknowledged by the duke of Wellington. Mr. Gleig says, "Had the duke been free to follow the dictates of his own judgment, he would have at once resumed the diplomatic relations which had been broken off between the two states. But England was committed to the young queen by the policy of the preceding administration; and the duke, though he believed that policy to be unwise, could not break through it in a moment."* It was not without difficulty, however, that England maintained her neutrality between the contending parties. The Portuguese refugees endeavoured, under various false pretences, to avail themselves of English hospitality, for the purpose of conveying arms and ammunition, and bodies of troops into Portugal, in order to restore the queen, alleging that they were sending them to Brazil, but they conveyed them to Terceira, one of the Azores. The consequence was, that 4,000 Portuguese troops, which were lying at Plymouth, were ordered to disband, and captain Walpole, with a squadron, was sent to watch the Portuguese ships in the Atlantic, in order to avoid the imputation of violating the neutrality.

Parliament having been prorogued, the members retired to their respective counties and boroughs, many of them out of humour with themselves and with the government which they had heretofore supported, and meditating revenge. An endeavour was made in the course of the summer to renew the political connection between the duke of Wellington and Mr. Huskisson. The friends of the existing administration felt the weakness of their position, deprived of their natural support, and liable to be outvoted at any time. The tories had become perfectly rabid in their indignation, vehemently charging the duke with violation of public faith, with want of statesmanship, with indifference to the wishes and necessities of the people, and with a determination to govern the country as if he were commanding an army. Their feelings were so excited that they joined in the whig cry of parliamentary reform, and spoke of turning the bishops out of the house of lords. It was to enable the premier to brave this storm that he was induced by his friends to receive Mr. Huskisson at his country house. The duke was personally civil, and even kind, to his visitor; but recollections of the past were too strong with him to permit his going further. Mr. Huskisson was perhaps disappointed at the result, for u his deportment" in the next session, which became keenly and even bitterly adverse, seemed to indicate that he had been led to entertain hopes which were never realised.

The year 1829 was distinguished by disturbances in Ireland, as well as distress in England. The 12th of July, the anniversary of the battle of the Boyne, was celebrated with unusual manifestations of defiance by the orangemen. The country seemed armed for civil war. In the county Clare there was a conflict between the protestants and catholics, in which one man was killed, and seven or eight wounded on each side. In Armagh there was a fight, in which ten men lost their lives. In the county Fermanagh, 800 Roman catholics, armed with scythes and pitchforks, turned out and attacked the protestants, killing four persons and wounding seven. The same party rose in Cavan, Monaghan, and Leitrim, threatening something like civil war. In Tipperary society was so convulsed that the magistrates met, and called upon the government for a renewal of the Insurrection Act, and for the passing of a law rendering the possession of fire-arms a transportable offence.

Such was the state of affairs at home and abroad during the recess of 1829. The government hoped that by the mollifying influence of time the rancour of the tory party would be mitigated, and that by the proposal of useful measures the whig leaders would be induced to give them their support, without admitting them to a partnership in power, and the emoluments of office. But in both respects they miscalculated. The duke met parliament again on the 4th of February, 1830. It was obvious from the first that neither was tory rancour appeased nor whig support effectually secured. The speech from the throne, which was delivered by commission, was unusually curt and vague. It admitted the prevalence of general distress. It was true that the exports in the last year of British produce and manufacture exceeded those of any former year; but, notwithstanding this indication of an active commerce, both the agricultural and the manufacturing classes were suffering severely in "some parts" of the United Kingdom. There was no question about the existence of distress; the only difference was, as to whether it was general or only partial. In the house of lords the government was attacked by lord Stanhope, who moved an amendment to the address. He asked in what part of the country was it that the ministers did not find distress prevailing? He contended that the kingdom was in a state of universal distress, likely to be unequalled in its duration. All the great interests - agriculture, manufactures, trade, and commerce - had never at one time, he said, been at so low an ebb. The speech ascribed the distress to a bad harvest. But could a bad harvest make corn cheap? It was the excessive reduction of prices which was felt to be the great evil. If they cast their eyes around, they would see the counties pouring on them spontaneously every kind of solicitation for relief; while in towns, stocks of every kind had sunk in value forty per cent. The depression, he contended, had been continuous and universal, ever since the Bank Restriction Act passed, and especially since the suppression of small notes took effect in the beginning of the previous year. Such a universal and continual depression could be ascribed only to some cause, pressing alike upon all branches of industry, and that cause was to be found in the enormous contraction of the currency, the Bank of England notes in circulation having been reduced from thirty millions to twenty millions, and the country bankers' notes in still greater proportion.

The duke of Wellington, in reply, denied that the bank circulation was less than it had been during the war. In the former period it was sixty-four millions, including gold and silver as well as paper. In 1830 it was sixty-five millions. It was an unlimited circulation, he said, that the opposition required; in other words, it was wished to give certain individuals, not the crown, the power of coining in the shape of paper, and of producing a fictitious capital. Capital was always forthcoming when it was wanted. He referred to the high rents paid for shops in towns, which were everywhere enlarged or improved, to "the elegant streets and villas which were springing up around the metropolis, and all our great towns, to show that the country was not falling, but improving." When the duke had replied, the supporters of the amendment could not muster, on a division, a larger minority than nine.

In the house of commons the discussion was more spirited, and the division more ominous of the fate of the ministry. The majority for ministers was only fifty-three, the numbers being 158 to 105. In the minority were found ultra-tories, such as Sir Edward Knatchbull, Mr. Bankes. Mr. Sadler, and general Gascoigne, who went into the same lobby with Sir Francis Burdett, lord John Russell, Mr. Brougham, Mr. Hume, and lord Althorp, representing the whigs and radicals; while lord Palmerston, Mr. Huskisson, Mr. Charles Grant, and Sir Stratford Canning represented the Canning party. No such jumble of parties had been known in any division for many years. "It was evident," says Sir Archibald Alison, "that the old tory party, so long firm and united, had been completely broken up by the heartburnings and irritation consequent on catholic emancipation, and that the general distress had given the various classes of malcontents a common ground, on which they could unite without abandoning or compromising any of their peculiar and declared principles. The habit of supporting government, and ministerial influence, might give the cabinet a majority over such a coalition for a time, but it could be for a time only; and on the first serious reverse, or occurrence of any internal cause of excitement, it would infallibly be shipwrecked. In truth, the duke of Wellington's position as prime minister, so far from being an enviable one, was among the most critical and painful that could be imagined. He had climbed to the pinnacle of power, but he had there found its loneliness, and experienced its ingratitude. Like Mr. Burke, after his secession from the whigs in 1793, he might have said, 'There is a severance which cannot be healed; I have lost my old friends, and am too old to make new ones.' He had no party in the house of commons, no real colleagues in the cabinet. He was a commander-in-chief there, surrounded by his generals of division, but not a premier aided by the counsels of his followers."

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

Dom Miguel and his sister.
Dom Miguel and his sister. >>>>

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