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


Accession of William IV. - His Popularity-Mr. Brougham's Eulogy of him - Mr. Roebuck's Estimate of his Character - Queen Adelaide- Address to the King - Whig Tactics - The Regency Question - Lord Eldon's Forebodings - Earl Grey's Motion - Debate in the Commons - Mr. Brougham - The Duke of Cumberland - Lord John Russell- Mr. Brougham's Attack on the Government - Mr. Brougham's Speech on Negro Slavery - Dissolution of Parliament - The French Revolution - Charles X. - The Royal Ordonnances Abolishing the Constitution - Suppression of the Public Journals - Remarkable Report on the Power of the Press - Meeting of Journalists - The Insurrection in Paris - Three Days' Fighting in the Streets - The People Victorious - Louis Philippe Elected King of the French - Tremendous Effect of the Revolution on Public Opinion in the United Kingdom - Aristocratic Leaders of the People in Middlesex and Yorkshire - Mr. Hume and Mr. Brougham - The General Election - The Results Unfavourable to the Government - The Duke of Wellington on Pocket Boroughs - Disturbed State of Ireland - O'Connell Challenged by ^ir Henry Hardinge - Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway - Death of Mr. Huskisson - The Duke of Wellington's Objection to Railway Travelling - Mr. Huskisson's Public Career - The Belgian Revolution - Incendiary Fires in England - Unpopularity of the Wellington Administration.
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William IV. was welcomed to the throne with great acclamation. Called "The Sailor King," he was endowed with many of the personal qualities which make the sailor's character popular with Englishmen. He had been lord high admiral, and in that capacity he had lately been moving about the coasts, making displays and enjoying fetes, although this was thought by some to be unseemly in the heir-presumptive to the throne, at a time when its occupant was known to be in a very infirm state of health. Heavy bills connected with these vainglorious displays were sent to the Treasury, which the duke of Wellington endorsed with a statement that such expenses were not allowed. Although opinions differed about William very much, not only between the friends of reform and the conservatives, but between the leaders of the liberal party themselves, he was esteemed the most popular king since the days of Alfred. Mr. Brougham thus contrasted his character with that of the late king: - " I hope," said he, in a debate about the proposed regency, " that elsewhere there is too much magnanimity, too much patriotism, too much manliness, too much strength of mind, to permit the illustrious sovereign now upon the throne to shrink from looking in the face that ultimate termination of his earthly existence from which a recent event may show him that princes, no more than their subjects, are exempt."

It was said that George IV. had an antipathy to Mr. Brougham, and that this was the great obstacle to a coalition between the tories and the whigs; though Mr. Roebuck, in the work which we have before quoted, hints that this opinion was unfounded, or that the impression about the king's feelings was at least exaggerated, and that the real difficulty lay with the duke of Wellington himself. Nothing, however, could be more natural than that George IV. should have an aversion to accept as one of his principal advisers the attorney-general of the late queen, whose scathing denunciations had so often wounded his feelings. Be that as it may, royalty, in his person, never presented itself in a favourable aspect to the mind of Mr. Brougham. It was very natural, therefore, that he should turn with a feeling of relief to the rising sun; and, having found William IV. as gracious as his predecessor had been "hostile, he spoke of the new king with the greatest warmth. Not only then, but all through his subsequent career, lord Brougham has been accustomed to describe William IV. as frank, just, and straightforward; as a sincere reformer, and earnest throughout the struggle which followed the introduction of the Reform Bill in his express desire to have that measure passed in all its integrity. Mr. Roebuck, on the contrary, regarded William IV. as anything but frank, just, and straightforward. He says, "I believe him to have been very weak and very false; a finished dissembler, and always bitterly hostile to the whig ministry and their measure of reform. He pretended to have unbounded confidence in them, and great respect for their opinion,-even while he was plotting their overthrow, and adopting every means in his power to hamper them in their conduct, and to depreciate them in the estimation of the world. All the documents I have seen which relate more immediately to the king - and they have been, for the most part, letters written by his command, and at his dictation - have led me to this conclusion. As a looker on, scanning carefully every word, and comparing letters written at different periods, and under very different states of mind, I could not resist the evidence which forced this opinion upon me, though I can well understand why lord Brougham finds it impossible to share it with me. The kindness and generosity of his own nature make him give easy credence to kind professions in others. The off-hand, hearty manner of the king, therefore, imposed upon his chancellor. The very weakness of the king, too, gave him strength. His capacity was notoriously contemptible; and lord Brougham could not for a moment believe himself the dupe of parts so inferior; and yet, in truth, was he deceived."

From this difference of opinion between two such observers and judges of human character, we see how difficult it is to form a correct estimate of the characters of public men, even when they have passed off the stage of life, and their actions have long ceased to affect the interests of contending parties. William was certainly a more exemplary character than his brother. He had indeed formed an attachment to a celebrated actress (Mrs. Jordan), by whom he had a numerous family, one of whom was subsequently admitted to the ranks of the nobility with the title of earl of Munster, and the others raised to the dignity of younger sons of a marquis. He had, however, been married for several years to the princess Adelaide, of Saxe-Meiningen, who became queen of England, and adorned her exalted station by her virtues and her beneficence. They had two children, both of whom died in infancy; and as the king was in the sixty-fifth year of his age, and the queen was not young, there was no longer any hope of a direct succession to the throne - a state of things which gave rise to the first contest between parties in parliament. As the demise of the sovereign puts an end to the legal existence of parliament in six months after, and as the usual practice of the constitution is to dissolve immediately, and have recourse to a general election as soon as the state of public business will permit, the consideration of all important questions of general politics was postponed. The first thing to be done was to move an address to the sovereign, " condoling " with him on the loss he had sustained in the death of his brother, and congratulating him upon his accession. This was moved by Sir Robert Peel, who had now succeeded to the title, his father having died this year, at the patriarchal age of eighty. It was seconded by Mr. Brougham. It was not to be expected that the latter could concur in the extravagant eulogy of the home secretary. But the address condoled with the king " on the loss of a sovereign so justly dear to his majesty and to his people." Mr. Brougham doubtless felt some difficulty in giving his assent to this averment concerning a prince whom he had himself branded as a " cruel and cowardly despot," and concerning whose character, as we have seen, he did not subsequently change his opinion. At that time, however, " nothing was heard," says Mr. Roebuck, " but a song of praise on the dead and the living. Of the stern voice of truth not a whisper was heard; the language would hardly have been different had the pious Antoninus died, and the philosophic Aurelius succeeded to his virtues and his power." The ministers and their supporters were complimentary, as a matter of course, to the new sovereign, who had graciously continued them in their offices; and the whigs, who had ascribed their exclusion from power to the personal dislike of the king, were resolved that there should not be again any obstacle of the kind, and that they would keep upon the best possible terms with the court. During the previous part of the session, they had kept up a rapid fire of motions and questions upon the government, especially with regard to the public expenditure, the distress of the operatives, and the necessity of rigid economy and large retrenchments. The attacks were led by Sir James Graham, who, though he was always left in a minority in the divisions on his motions, did much to weaken the government by exciting public feeling against them on the ground of their alleged heartless extravagance, while many of the people were starving, and the country was said to be going fast to destruction. Mr. Roebuck believes that the object of these concerted tactics was to force upon the duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel a coalition with the whigs, or rather to punish them for not having sought the alliance. As they seemed to show no disposition to do so, even at this crisis, as they existed only by the sufferance of the whig party, as a general election was approaching, and as before the parliament met again it was quite possible that the throne might be once more vacant, the whigs resolved to make a provision for such a contingency before the dissolution. The duke of Wellington, however, movecl an answer to the royal message, declaring that they would forward the measure necessary to provide for the temporary supply required. He suggested that as everybody would be occupied about the coming elections, the best mode of proceeding would be to dissolve at once. Lord Grey, in the name of the opposition, complained of this precipitancy, and delivered a long speech full of solemn warnings of evil. He supposed that the king might die before the new parliament was chosen; the heir-presumptive was a child is fact, though not in law. No regency existing, she would be legally in the possession of her full regal power, and this was a situation which he contended would be fraught with danger. Lord Eldon, smarting under his exclusion from office, was spitefully facetious in his forebodings. The king might die, he argued; the heir-presumptive was a child, and the queen might be pregnant. " In illustrating the difficulties of the case," says Mr. Roebuck, " the ex- chancellor excited the wonder of some, the anger of others, and the risibility of many more " by talking about little peers yet unborn; of the house of lords being, by a second Guy Fawkes, blown into the air; and the difficulty of directing the writs in such a case to the new house of lords. The lord chancellor would have to ascertain whether there was any little peer not then visible, but who might be so in due course of time, and until that was determined the title would be in abeyance. He applied this rule to the queen, saying there must be a real or a phantom king, and it was just the same in principle, whether this little king were not able to speak or walk, or whether he were not yet in existence. He said that if he were prime minister, there was nothing he would like better than a little king whom he could play with. Lord Ellenborough's taste was grievously shocked by lord Eldon's anile allusions, and he read him a severe lesson on the proprieties of debate. The anti-catholic party, still retaining their anger, joined lord Grey in condemning the ministerial proposal. A long, unprofitable wrangle ensued, dull repetitions dragged out the debate, when at length the duke wisely refused to accede to the proposition for a useless interval of delay, and proved the numerical strength of the administration." Lord Grey having moved for an adjournment, to allow time for providing a regency, the motion was lost by a majority of ", the numbers being 56 against 100. In the house of commons, on the same evening (the 30th of June), Sir Robert Peel moved an address to the same effect. Lord Althorp, acting in concert with lord Grey, moved the adjournment of the house for twenty-four hours, to allow time for consideration. Mr. Brougham seconded the motion, and touched upon the delicate topic of the civil list - peculiarly delicate, under existing circumstances, as the speaker was the champion of popular rights and the advocate of economy, and, at the same time, in a position which rendered it very likely that he would soon be called to the counsels of his sovereign, and would probably be the next lord chancellor. He then touched upon the still more delicate question of the regency. "The necessity for an arrangement was great and immediate; but there were evidently circumstances connected with it which made every speaker exceedingly cautious, periphrastic, and, indeed, nearly unintelligible, when treating what may be deemed a very plain and not a very difficult matter. A superstitious dislike to make a will or any provisions to take effect after the death of the person so disposing, is by no means uncommon. With many weak people, any discussion or arrangement which proceeds upon the supposition of their death is not only distasteful, but absolutely painful, and with royal personages it is often peculiarly so. The mere contemplation of death has a levelling tendency. The language of Mr. Brougham on the present occasion proves that he feared lest some weakness of this description lodged in the royal mind, making it dangerous for those who hope to enjoy the royal favour to discourse upon the possibility - nay, the probability - of the king's death. The dexterity of the orator was taxed to find phrases of a nature which, while they were sufficiently explicit, could not frighten or annoy the person to whom they referred."

The discussion in the commons, however, was not without interest, as it touched upon constitutional questions of vital importance. Mr. Brougham did his part with admirable tact. He dwelt upon the danger of allowing the people [to learn that government could go on, and every exigence of the common weal be provided for, without a king. The act which had appointed the late prince regent had been passed without the royal sanction, the king being insane, and no provision having been made to meet the calamity that occurred. The act of parliament was called a law, but it was no law; it had not even the semblance of a law; and the power which it conveyed was in those days called the phantom of royal authority. The fact, indeed, was that the tendency of that act of parliament, more than any other act that had ever been passed by the legislature, was to inflict a blow on the royal authority; to diminish its influence and weight; to bring it into disrepute with, and to lessen it in the estimation of, the people at large; and that fact is in itself a sufficient comment upon the propriety of doing an act of legislation without having the crown to sanction it. That, he said, was his first great and principal reason for proceeding with this question at once. He showed that one of the greatest advantages connected with the monarchical form of government was the certainty of the succession, and the facile and quiet transmission of power from one hand to another, thus avoiding the inconveniences and dangers of an interregnum. The question was rendered more difficult and delicate by the fact that the duke of Cumberland, the most unpopular man in the country, was the eldest of the remaining brothers of the king, and, in the event of his death, he would be heir-presumptive of the throne of England, and actually king of Hanover. In the case supposed, the question would arise, whether the next heir to the throne was of right regent, should the sovereign be incompetent, from infancy, insanity, or any other cause. If that right were established, then the regent, during the minority of the princess Victoria, would be a foreign monarch, and one who was utterly detested by the mass of the people of England. Such a question, arising at a moment when the spirit of revolution was abroad, might agitate the public mind to a degree that would be perilous to the constitution. The contingencies were sufficiently serious, therefore, to justify the efforts of lord Grey and Mr. Brougham to have the regency question settled before the dissolution. They may not have been sorry to have a good popular case against the government, but their conduct was not fairly liable to the imputation of faction or mere personal ambition. " Can we," asked Mr. Brougham, " promise ourselves a calm discussion d the subject when there should be an actual accession of the duke of Cumberland to the throne of Hanover? and parliament is suddenly called upon to decide upon his election to the regency, to the supreme rule in this country, to which, according to the principle of Mr. Pitt, he has a paramount claim, although he has not a strict legal right."

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

William IV
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Great seal of William IV
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