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Chapter XIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

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The preponderance of argument and eloquence was greatly on the side of the people. Among the many able speeches delivered on the occasion, the most masterly was by Mr. Macaulay - the most distinguished for its knowledge of history, its philosophic spirit, the force of its reasoning, and the beauty of its language.

"We talk," said he, "of the wisdom of our ancestors; and in one respect, certainly, they were wiser than we are. They legislated for their own times; they looked at England as it was before them; they did not think it necessary to give twice as many members to York as they did to London, because York had been the capital of England in the time of Constantine; and they would certainly have been amazed if they had been told that a city with a hundred thousand inhabitants would be left without representation in the nineteenth century, merely because in the thirteenth it consisted only of a few huts. They formed a representative system, not indeed without defects and irregularities, but which was well adapted to the England of their time. But when new forms of property arose, when former towns became villages, and former villages became towns, a change in the representation became necessary, to prevent it from becoming the mere vehicle of class government, and thereby proving a curse, instead of a blessing, to society. Unfortunately, when times were changed, the old institutions remained unchanged. The form remained when the spirit had departed. Then came the pressure almost to bursting - the new wine in the old bottles - the new people under the old institutions. It is now time for us to pay a decent, rational, manly reverence to our ancestors, not by superstitiously adhering to what, under other circumstances, they did, but by doing what they, under our circumstances, would have done. All history is full of revolutions, produced by causes similar to those which are now operating in England. A portion of the community which had been of no account expands and becomes strong. It demands a place in the system, suited not to its former weakness, but to its present strength. If this is granted, all is well; if it is refused, then comes the struggle between the young energy of the one class and the ancient privileges of the other. Such was the struggle between the patricians and plebeians of Rome; such was the struggle between the Italian allies for admission to the full rights of Roman citizens; such was the struggle of the North American colonies against the mother country; such was the struggle of the tiers état of France against the aristocracy of birth; such was the struggle which the catholics of Ireland maintained against the aristocracy of creed; such is the struggle which the free people of colour in Jamaica are now maintaining against the aristocracy of Skin; such, finally, is the struggle which the middle classes of England are maintaining against the aristocracy of mere locality - against an aristocracy the principle of which is to invest a hundred drunken potwallopers in one place, the owner of a ruined hovel in another, with power which we withhold from cities renowned to the farthest end of the earth for the marvels of their wealth and the prodigies of their industry.

"The argument drawn from the virtual representation is wholly unfounded. On what principle can it be maintained that a power which is admitted to be salutary when exercised virtually, is noxious when exercised directly? If the wishes of Manchester have already as much influence with us as if Manchester were directly represented, can there be any danger in giving direct members to Manchester? The utmost that can be said for virtual representation is, that it is as good as direct representation. If so, why not grant direct representation? If it be said there is an evil in change, is there not a still greater evil in discontent? Can it be said that a system works well which has become the parent of boundless discontent - which has almost alienated the hearts of the people from the institutions of their country? It is almost as essential to the utility of a house of commons, that it should possess the confidence of the people, as that it should deserve that confidence. But it is here that the crazy part of the constitution is to be found; what should be the most popular part of the constitution has become the most unpopular. None but a few insane radicals wish to dethrone the king, or turn out the house of lords; but the whole people desire to alter the constitution of the house of commons."

Another accomplished master of rhetoric, and sound political philosopher, Francis, afterwards lord Jeffrey, followed up the same irresistible line of argument. He showed that the fall of all the free states that ever existed on earth had been owing to the obstinate resistance of the privileged classes to an extension of the privilege of voting to other classes of citizens. "It was thus with Athens and Sparta, and the Italian republics, in which thousands disposed of the interests, the fortunes, and the lives of millions. We lost our American colonies because we insisted on taxing them without their consent. Coercive operations, pushed to the utmost extent of cruelty, had been tried in vain. The press had been fettered, the Habeas Corpus Act had been suspended, public meetings had been prohibited, the whole stock of palliatives had been exhausted, and the evils remained more formidable than ever. Under these circumstances, the government had brought forward the great measure of conciliation, intended to still all animosities, to reconcile all interests, and to satisfy all reasonable expectations. It took away inordinate power from the few, that it might be distributed on principles of equity among the mass of the middle orders - the citizens of towns and the yeomanry of the country. The end of all government is the happiness of the people, and that happiness can never be promoted by a form of government in which the middle classes have no confidence. Give them their rightful position in the constitution, and they will become its main support, and its firmest defenders. Nor let it be apprehended that the effect of this plan would be to destroy the power and privileges of the aristocracy, and exclude talent from the legislature. Large and populous boroughs would spontaneously choose men of ability and public spirit. No reform can prevent wealth, learning, and eloquence from having their proper influence where constituencies are free. An aristocracy dwelling among the people, and performing the duties of property in their neighbourhood, cannot fail to exert legitimately great influence on elections. But if there be a portion of the aristocracy who do not live among the people, and care nothing for them - who seek honours without merit, places without duty, and pension without service - the sooner it is swept away, with the corruption it has engendered, the better for the country in which it has repressed so long every wholesome and invigorating influence."

Scotland, before the reform bill, was ruled by an oligarchy. The population was two millions and a half, the constituency was only 2,500. The power was to be taken from that small junto, and extended to the great middle class of that intelligent and loyal people. In Ireland, a host of rotten boroughs, some without any constituency at all, was to be swept away. The general result would be an increase for the United Kingdom of half a million electors, making the whole number enjoying the franchise 900,000. Of these 50,000 would be found in the new towns, created into parliamentary boroughs in England, 110,000 additional electors in boroughs already returning members. For instance, London would have 95,000; the English counties, 100,000; Scotland, 60,000; Ireland, 40,000. The house would consist in all of 596 members, being a reduction of sixty-two on the existing number of 658. The number of seats abolished was 168, which reduced the house to 490. Five additional members were given to Scotland, three to Ireland, one to Wales, eight to London, thirty-four to large English towns, and fifty-five to English counties.

"No words," says Sir Archibald Alison, "can convey an adequate idea of the astonishment which the announcement of this project of reform created in the house of commons and the country. Nothing approaching to it had ever been witnessed before, or has been since. Men's minds were prepared for a change, perhaps a very considerable one, especially in the enfranchising new cities and towns which were unrepresented; but it never entered into the imagination of any human being out of the cabinet that so sweeping and entire a change would be proposed, especially by the king's ministers. The tories had never dreaded such a revolution; the radicals had never hoped for it. Astonishment was the universal feeling. Many laughed outright; none thought the bill could pass. It was supposed by many that ministers neither intended nor desired it, but wished only to establish a thorn in the side of their adversaries, which should prevent them from holding power if they succeeded in displacing them. So universal was this feeling, that it is now generally admitted that had Sir Robert Peel, instead of permitting the debate to go on, instantly divided the house, on the plea that the proposed measure was too revolutionary to be for a moment entertained, leave to bring in the bill would have been refused by a large majority. The cabinet ministers themselves are known to have thought at the time that their official existence then hung upon a thread."

Mr. Roebuck often heard lord Brougham relate an anecdote which seems to confirm the opinion here expressed by Sir Archibald Alison. But Mr. Roebuck relates it as a vivid illustration of the ignorance of ministers, even at the eleventh hour, as to the feelings of the people. The story is, that the members of the cabinet who were not in the house of commons dined that day with the lord chancellor, whose secretary, Mr. (afterwards Sir Denis) le Marchant, sat under the gallery of the house of commons, and sent half-hour bulletins to the noble and learned lord on the progress of the debate. They ran thus: - "' Lord John has been up ten minutes - house very full - great anxiety and interest shown - extraordinary sensation produced by the plan on both sides of the house. Lord John is near the end of his speech. My next will tell you who follows him.' ' Now,' said lord Brougham, 'we have often talked over and guessed at the probable course of the opposition; and I always said, were I in Peel's place, I would not condescend to argue the point, but would, so soon as lord John Russell sat down, get up and declare that I would not debate so revolutionary, so mad a proposal, and would insist upon dividing the house at once. "If he does this," I used to say, "we are dead beat; but if he allows himself to be drawn into a discussion, we shall succeed." When Le Marchant's bulletin at length came, which was to tell us the course adopted by the opposition, I held the note unopened in my hand, and laughing, said, "Now this decides our fate; therefore let us take a glass of wine all round, in order that we may with proper nerve read the fatal missive." Having done so, I opened the note, and seeing the first line, which was, "Peel has been up twenty minutes," I flourished the note round my head, "Hurra! hurra! victory! Victory! Peel has been speaking twenty minutes! " And so we took another glass of wine to congratulate ourselves on our good fortune.' "

It may be owing to a lapse of memory on the part of lord Brougham that he represented Sir Robert Peel as replying to lord John Russell. The motion of the noble lord was seconded by Sir John Sebright, and the first opposition speaker was Sir Robert Inglis. Mr. Roebuck marvels how little ministers knew of the intensity of the public feeling, when they believed that Sir Robert Peel could have so disposed of the measure, remarking that "so daring and insolent a disregard of popular opinion would have risked everything which Sir Robert Peel and every wise man held dear."

Sir Robert Inglis argued vehemently against the measure. He denounced the government for having proclaimed that the house of commons had lost the confidence of the country, and was incompetent to perform its proper functions. It was the first time for fifty years that any minister of the crown had dared to do so, and to pledge their sovereign before the country to such a falsehood. The popular demand for parliamentary reform, he contended, had arisen entirely from the example of successful revolutions in France and Belgium, and would subside gradually when those convulsions had terminated. He might apply to the state of things the words of Burke in 1770: " Faction will make its cries resound through the nation as if the whole were in an uproar, when by far the majority, and much the better part, will seem for a time annihilated by the quiet in which their virtue and moderation incline them to enjoy the blessings of government." They called their plan a restoration, but it was nothing of the kind. It was never a principle of the English constitution that representation should be founded upon population and taxation. Our sovereigns in early times called parliaments together because they wanted men and money, and the appeal was made to liberi hominies. The next step was calling on communities to assist at these parliaments, but then each community had only one vote. He defied any one to point out a single instance, in the whole history of England, in which a town or borough was called into parliamentary existence because it was large and populous, or excluded because it was small and decayed. Old Sarum, of which so much had been heard, had never been larger than when it was disfranchised. As to Manchester, and other large manufacturing towns, they had prospered without any representatives, and had never wanted advocates in the house to maintain their rights. The house of commons was, in fact, the most complete representation of the interests of the people that ever was assembled in any age or country. It was the absence of symmetry in the elective franchise which admitted to the house interests so various. The concordia discors opens the door to the admission of all talent, and of all classes, and of all interests. The men who have entered parliament by means of the close or rotten boroughs, as they are called, have been its greatest ornaments, and more than any others contributed to the advancement and prosperity of the kingdom. There has not been an eminent man in the house of commons for the last hundred years who did not begin his career as member for a close borough. Lord Chatham entered parliament as member for Old Sarum; Mr. Pitt represented Appleby; Mr. Fox, rejected by a large constituency, took refuge in a close borough. Mr. Burke and Mr. Canning sat originally for Wendover, and it was only in their glory they were transferred - the former to Bristol, and the latter to Liverpool. Romilly and Brougham owed their elevation to the same system, but for the existence of which in their early days they would have been unknown to fame. How could they otherwise get into parliament? Will men of independence or genius condescend to the arts requisite to gain large constituencies? It was alleged that the unreformed parliament was filled with placemen, but the opponents of reform asserted that there was never an age when it contained a smaller number. In the first parliament of George I., the number was 271; in the first of George II., it was 257; but in the first of George IV., it was 109. They argued, following Mr. Canning, that if reform were granted the constitution would be destroyed. It was possible that titles of honour might still be continued; it was possible that the house of lords might retain a nominal existence; but its real conservative power, its distinct legislative character, would be gone. Popularise the house of commons, and the reformers would have everything their own way. They knew that the prerogatives of the crown and the privileges of the nobility would be but as the dust in the balance against a preponderating democracy. They would be liable to be swept away by an angry vote of the house of commons. The crown and the peerage would be to the constitution, which they assail, but as the baggage to the army.

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