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

Political Unions - Meeting of Parliament - The Reform Committee? its Report - The Scheme of Reform submitted to the King - The Budget - Agitation on the Reform Question - Excitement in the House of Commons on the Introduction of the Measure - The Principles of the Bill - Lord John Russell - Debates on the First Reading - Arguments in Favour of the Measure - Mr. Macaulay - Virtual Representation - Evils of Political Monopoly - Inefficacy of Coercion - Influence of the Aristocracy - Scotland - Ireland - Increase of Electors under the Reform Bill - New Constituencies - Astonishment caused by the Sweeping Changes - Anecdote by Lord Brougham - Arguments against the Bill - Sir Robert Inglis - Alleged Utility of Rotten Boroughs - Placemen in Parliament - The First Reading of the Bill - State of Parties - Reformers and Conservatives - " The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill " - Mutual Intolerance - Petition of the Glasgow Operatives - Petition of the London Bankers and Merchants - Doleful Predictions as to the Destructive Effects of Reform - The Second Reading of the Bill carried by a Majority of One - Terrific Pressure from Without - General Gascoyne's Motion - Defeat of the Government - The King's Objection to a Dissolution - Stopping the Supplies - Mr. Stanley - The Irish Reform Bill - Impatience of the Lords - Lord Wharncliffe - Appeals to the King - The Lord Chancellor - The King's Timidity and Vanity - Interview of Lord Grey and Lord Brougham with the King - Extraordinary Scenes in the Lords and in the Commons - The Dissolution.
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On the 1st of February, 1831, the Birmingham Political Union held its anniversary. It had been established some years, for the purpose of agitating for reform, organised somewhat on the principle of the Irish Catholic Association, and exerting a mighty influence on public opinion in the northern counties'. Mr. Attwood stated that at this time it had on its books 9,000 members, paying from 4s. to £2 2s. a-year each. Other unions of a similar kind were established in many of the cities and towns throughout the kingdom.

On the 3rd parliament assembled, and the nation was full of expectation as to the measures of the government. The great question of the day was understood to have been under their anxious consideration during the winter. It subsequently transpired that the measure of reform contemplated by lord Grey at the close of the year was far more moderate than the one which was brought forward by lord John Russell. The material increase in the amount of concession was said to be chiefly owing to the growing demands of the people, enlightened by the discussions in the political unions. Lord Durham was believed to be the most advanced liberal in the cabinet, and to have most strenuously insisted on the necessity of a very liberal measure. " The first disposition of my mind," said lord Grey, on the 28th of March, " certainly was to limit the reform within a much narrower compass; but after full consideration, and after having discussed the subject with my colleagues, I Was convinced that nothing short of the present measure was likely to lead to the satisfactory result of fulfilling the wishes of all classes, and of giving to the government security and respect." The king is believed to have given his consent most reluctantly to any measure of reform, however moderate. The one proposed he regarded as dangerously extensive, and but for the apprehension of popular commotion, he would have got rid of a subject which was extremely distasteful to him by dismissing the whig ministry. He had been greatly offended by the discussions on the civil list, and he appealed to the law officers of the crown to know whether the house of commons had the power of doing what their committee recommended with respect to certain salaries. This matter left a soreness on his mind towards lord Grey, and some other members of the government. He was so finished a dissembler, however, that it is said he made them believe that they enjoyed his personal favour, while they were the objects of his most inveterate hate. At all events, they had to contend with his unmitigated, though disguised hostility, in the whole course of the discussions on the reform bill. In order that the measure might be well matured, and might fully meet the wants of the country, lord Grey appointed a committee to consider the whole subject, and report upon it to the cabinet. This committee consisted of his son-in-law, lord Durham, who was intimately acquainted with his own views; lord John Russell, who had represented the whig party in the house of commons in the various proposals that he had made on the subject of reform; Sir James Graham, who enjoyed the confidence of the advanced liberals, and was considered something more than a whig; and lord Duncannon, who was supposed to be well acquainted with the Irish corporations. According to the general instructions given to the committee, they were to prepare the outlines of a measure, which should be sufficiently comprehensive to meet the demands of public opinion, so as to extinguish the desire for further change. But it must rest upon property as its basis, and be connected with existing territorial divisions. He wished that the prerogative of the crown should be in no degree diminished, that the peers should lose none of their rights or privileges; but that saving these, the democracy should play its due part in the legislation and government of the country - that the house of commons should really represent its intelligence, its feelings, and its property. The committee began to work earnestly as soon as the administration was definitely organised. They first calmly and amicably discussed the principles involved in the measure, then the details were separately and minutely examined, and when a point was decided and agreed upon it was recorded in writing by lord Durham. Lord John Russell furnished the materials for schedules A and B, which were supplied to him by coadjutors, who were labouring diligently out of doors facilitating the work. There was a secret history about those schedules, and imputations were freely cast upon the committee of unfairness and jobbing, to save whig boroughs from disfranchisement. Mr. Roebuck thinks that some of those imputations were not wholly without reason, and that the results did look exceedingly suspicious, remarking that Tavistock, the family borough of the duke of Bedford, though constantly the subject of hostile criticism, " always, by some peculiar and happy fatality, escaped from the drag-net of the dreaded schedules." The first draft of the measure, as adopted by the committee, was explained by lord Durham, in the form of a report to the cabinet, showing how the plans thus propounded would fulfil the conditions required, and, by satisfying all reasonable desires, stop the tendency to innovation. Considering the reluctance of the king, with which lord Grey had to contend in secret, and the timidity of some members of the cabinet, the boldness of the measure was remarkable, and it took the nation rather by surprise. But this boldness was sound policy. It produced a feeling of decided satisfaction and confidence in the public mind, and disarmed all those men of ultra-views, who would have carried change to an extent fatal to the constitution. The scheme, when thus placed before the cabinet, became the subject of their anxious deliberation, and was unanimously adopted by them. It was then submitted to the king at Brighton, a few days before the meeting of parliament, was discussed with him from point to point, and eventually sanctioned. The king, however, seemed anxious to put off the introduction of the subject, if possible. He harped upon the probability of a defeat, and the mischiefs that might result, in the excited state of the public mind, from a general election, stating explicitly that he would not dissolve parliament if the plan should be rejected by the house of commons, and that he would not endeavour to coerce the house of lords, if they should feel it to be their duty to throw out the bill.

As soon as parliament assembled, earl Grey in the upper house, and lord Althorp in the commons, stated what the intentions of the government were with regard to the reform question. Earl Grey announced that they had prepared a measure which had met with the entire, the unanimous concurrence of the whole of his majesty's government. The measure was to originate in the house of commons, and lord Althorp intimated that the duty of introducing it had been intrusted to the paymaster of the forces, lord John Russell, though not then a member of the cabinet. This was done because they thought it no more than due to his long perseverance in the cause of reform in times when it was unpopular. When it was difficult to obtain a hearing upon the subject, he had brought forward plans of partial reform, and now that the cause was prosperous, they deemed it due to his perseverance and ability that he should be the person selected by the government to bring forward their plan of full and efficient reform. The measure was to be introduced on the 1st of March.

On the 11th of February lord Althorp brought forward the budget. Basing his calculations on the revenue of the previous year, he estimated the national income ał £50,000,000, and the expenditure at £46,850,000, leaving an anticipated surplus of more than £3,000,000; and it was proposed to takeoff taxes to the whole of that amount, and to replace it to some extent by other taxes, less burdensome to the people. The principal taxes to be taken off were those on tobacco, sea-borne coal tallow candles, glass, printed calicoes, and newspapers. The new taxes consisted in an increase of the duties on wine, colonial timber, and raw cotton, a tax on steamboat passengers, and on the transfers of funded property. The proposed new taxes excited violent opposition, which obliged the chancellor of the exchequer to modify some of them, and abandon the last two; in fact, the financial scheme was a failure. But the government was borne up by its great measure, the reform bill.

During the interval that elapsed between the opening of parliament and the introduction of this measure, society was in a state of nervous anxiety and suspense, which became at length almost unbearable. Petitions poured into the house of commons from every part of the United Kingdom, conveying the earnest desire of the people for a real representation, which would put an end to the influence of the aristocracy in returning its members. They recommended, as the best means of effecting these objects, that the duration of parliament should be shortened, that the suffrage should be extended, and that elections should be by ballot. They expressed their conviction that a fair representation of the people would prevent manufacturing distress, commercial embarrassment, and violent fluctuations in the currency; that it would prevent unjust and unnecessary wars, and restrain the profligate expenditure of the public money on placemen and pensioners. Itinerant orators were employed by the political unions to hold meetings for the discussion of all questions of this kind, while the press put forth its gigantic power with tremendous effect, in the provinces as well as in the metropolis. " At length," says a conservative historian, " the momentous day arrived, big with the future destinies of England, and the whole civilised world." The house was thronged to excess in every part; all the avenues to it were choked with anxious and agitated crowds, panting to get the first intelligence of the eventful measure; and there were messengers mounted on fleet horses, to convey to the newspaper-offices, and through them to the country, the earliest reports of the debate. When the doors of the gallery opened, the rush was tremendous. So well had the secret been kept by the cabinet, though so deeply interesting, that not the slightest surmise had gone abroad as to the nature of the measure; and when lord John Russell rose, amidst profound silence, to state the ministerial plan, it came as much by surprise upon the whole house as upon the most distant parts of the country.

Lord John Russell's speech was remarkable for research, accuracy, and knowledge of constitutional law. He showed that the grievances of which the people complained, in connection with the parliamentary representation, were three. First, the nomination of members by individuals; secondly, elections by close corporations; and thirdly, the enormous expenses of elections. Sixty nomination boroughs, not having a population of 2,000 each, were to be totally disfranchised; 47 boroughs, having a population of not more than 4,000, and returning two members each, would be deprived of one. The seats thus obtained were to be given to large towns and populous counties. In boroughs, the elective franchise was to be extended to householders paying £10 rent; in counties, to copyholders of £10 a- year, and leaseholders of £50. Persons already in possession of the right of voting, were not to be deprived of it, if actually resident. Non-resident electors were to be disfranchised, and the eviration of elections to be shortened by increasing the facilities for taking the poll. No compensation was to be given to the proprietors of the disfranchised boroughs, which was justified under the precedent of the forty-shilling freeholders of Ireland, who had received no compensation for the loss of their votes. The question of the duration of parliaments was reserved for future consideration.

It was a great honour to lord John Russell to have assigned to him the task of introducing so important a measure to the house of commons. It is not likely that he owed it altogether to his previous efforts in the cause of parliamentary reform. It was, to some extent, a compliment to the great house of Bedford. Though destined afterwards to occupy the first position in the government of the country, he was then looked upon as a man of moderate abilities, though he used them with industry. " He had no pretensions to the name of an orator," says Mr. Roebuck; " his utterance was hesitating, his voice thin, unmusical, and rendered utterly disagreeable by a drawling, nasal twang, which would have tended to render seriously ineffective the most pointed and eloquent language, the most profound thought, and even the most weighty argument. But in lord John Russell's speaking none of these redeeming qualities were to be found. All he said was marked by plain good sense, and regulated generally by good taste. The views he took of every subject were the views merely of his class - without originality, unadorned by learning, unaided by any force or brilliancy of style. Mediocrity is the word that best describes the character and class of his intellect; and simply not to offend, was the highest reach of his ability. The great topic was not ennobled by one ray of genius - one spark of wit - one touch of eloquence. All was decorous, uniform, frigid mediocrity - the plodding exercise of an industrious, well- intentioned, but unhappily dull scholar. The noble lord's address was unequal to the great occasion, to the remarkable assembly to which he addressed himself, and to the high position which he accidentally held. But the enthusiasm out of doors supplied every deficiency. The slow vessel, freighted with the fortunes of reform, was borne onward by the rushing tide on which it was now launched, beyond the control of the ministry or their representative. On the good sense and good feeling of the people of England its destinies now entirely depended." The bill was read a first time without a division, after an animated discussion, which lasted seven days. During the protracted debates, nearly every man of mark in the house spoke on one side or the other. For the measure were lord Althorp, Hume, Macaulay, Sheil, lord Morpeth, Guisburne, Stanley, Wyse, Sir J. Graham, O'Connell, Lushington, lord Ebrington, Hobhouse, lord Tavistock, lord Palmerston, lord Howiek, R. Grant, Harvey, J. Wood, alderman Waithman, T. Duncombe, H. L. Bulwer, C. Grant, W. Cavendish, Rice, J. Champell, C. Ferguson, Sir T. Denman, and Sir W. Home. Against the bill were Sir R. Inglis, H. Twiss, lord F. Gower, Sir Charles Wethereil, viscount Mahon, Baring, lord Darlington, C. Wynn, Sir R. Peel, Col. Sibthorpe, Sir G. Clerk, Tyrrell, North, W. Y. Peel, Bethel Praed, M. Attwood, Sir J. York, Goulburn, Courtenay, Croker, G. Bankes, K. Douglas, Lefroy, Sir G. Warrender, Cartwright, Sir R. Vivian, V. Stuart, Sir E. Sugden, lord Valetort, Sir J. Shelley, Shaw, Sir J. Scarlett, Sir T. Acland, General Gascoyne, M. T. Sadler, lord Starmont, Sir R. Wilson, and G. Price.

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Lord Brougham and Vaux
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