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Chapter XIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3

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Such was the course of argument on the side of the conservatives. After a debate of seven nights, the bill was read a first time, without a division; the second reading had been set down for the 21st of March. In the meantime the nation began to form itself rapidly into two parties - reformers and anti-reformers. The tories were all re-united, driven together by the sense of a common danger; divisions occasioned by the currency and agricultural distress were all forgotten - all merged in one mighty current of conservative feeling. The whole strength of that party rallied under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel. His bitterest opponents, such as lord Winchelsea and Sir Edward Knatchbull, were among the most ardent and cordial of his allies. On the other hand, the reformers were in transports of joy and exultation. "I honestly confess," said Mr. John Smith, "that when I first heard the ministerial proposal it had the effect of taking away my breath, so surprised and delighted was I to find the ministers so much in earnest." This was the almost universal feeling among reformers, who comprised the mass of the middle and working classes. No bill in our parliamentary history was ever honoured like this. It was accepted by universal suffrage as the charter of reform. Every clause, every sentence, every word in it was held sacred; and the watchword at every meeting, the cry of the vox populi everywhere was, "The bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill." Petitions were got up in every town, and almost every parish, some of them bearing twenty thousand or thirty thousand signatures, demanding the passing of the bill untouched and unimpaired. The more determined the resistance of the conservative party, the more violent the reformers became. One natural result of the public excitement was a fanatical intolerance amongst the most ignorant of the people. The conservatives complained of this temper of the multitude; they said that if the best men in the community expressed convictions opposed to the prevalent opinions, they were dealt with as being profligate oppressors, who wished to trample on and plunder the people - creatures, therefore, to be hunted down as beasts of prey if they did not fly before the face of their pursuers. No matter how independent their position, or excellent their character, they were denounced as betrayers of the rights of the people, as robbers of the poor, as crawling slaves of the noble and the wealthy. To dissent from the bill was to exhibit a corruption of heart, an incapacity of understanding, which unfitted the wretch who was guilty of this baseness for any place within the pale of the constitution.

The violence and exaggeration, however, were fairly balanced on each side; and when we compare the petitions in favour of the bill emanating from the working classes with those of the wealthiest members of the community, we shall find that the men who were treated with scorn, and called a rabble and a mob, were not inferior to their revilers in wisdom and moderation, in justness of thought, or dignity of language. We have a striking example of this in the case of the Glasgow operatives, who had been distinguished as radical reformers, and who yet addressed the house of commons in the following terms, at a time when the excitement was at its height: -

"Your petitioners hail, with heartfelt satisfaction, the plan of reform now brought forward by his majesty's ministers, as an earnest of the sincerity and firm determination on the part of the legislature to meet the rising wishes of the country.

"Your petitioners, though not included in the present mode of elective franchise, and although they are conscious of their capability to exercise this indisputable right, yet, taking into view the corrupt and distracted state of parties, whose exclusive monopolies are about to be wrested from their grasp, the difficulties which ministers have to encounter in meeting so many conflicting interests, and sacrificing their own prejudice and pride of rank on the altar of public opinion, humbly conceive that the present measure is best calculated to allay party turbulence, recall the country from the brink of inevitable revolution, and place the representation on a principle which carries with it a progressive improvement which must ultimately relieve the country from many grievous embarrassments, and secure to the labourer an ample and just share in the productions of his own hands, and protect him in future from all vicious and galling restrictions.

"Your petitioners deprecate the most distant idea of a revolution; and although by such an event they have little to lose, yet they dread the horrors that might be perpetrated. and thus refrain from insisting on their right to vote. They envy neither title nor wealth, but they wish to be placed in such a condition that they may enjoy in peace the reward of their own labour, and be enabled to raise themselves, on their own resources, to comfort and comparative independence; and in thus abandoning their claims for the present, your petitioners fervently hope that the high parties who have so bitterly opposed the ministerial plan of reform, and who ought to have taken the lead in concession, will now be induced to relinquish a part of their unjust claims; but should they still persevere in their wicked purposes, and should it be found necessary, your petitioners will willingly arm themselves to a man in defence of the throne and his majesty's patriotic councillors."

These Glasgow operatives, thus cheerfully submitting to the privation of the franchise, though feeling conscious and proving that they were capable of using it with advantage to the country - praying that a great and useful reform, which excluded them, might be carried, and offering to arm when called upon in defence of the crown and government - presented a noble spectacle.

A petition of a very different nature was presented by the bankers and merchants of London against the bill. " While," said they, " we should have been far from opposing the adoption of any proposition temperate in its character, gradual in its operation, consistent with justice and the ancient usages of the realm, and having for its object the correction of acknowledged abuses, or any amelioration in the administration of public affairs, we feel it impossible to regard in that light a measure which, by its unprecedented and unnecessary infringement on the rights and privileges of large and wealthy bodies of people, would go far to shake the foundation of that constitution under which our sovereign holds his title to the throne, his nobles to their estates, and ourselves and the rest of our fellow-subjects to the various possessions and indemnities which we enjoy by law; a measure which, while it professes to enlarge the representation of the kingdom on the broad basis of property, would, in its practical operation, have the effect of closing the principal avenues through which the moneyed, the commercial, the shipping, and colonial interests, together with all those connected and independent interests throughout our vast empire abroad, have hitherto been represented in the legislature, and would thus effectually exclude the possessors of a large portion of the national wealth from any effectual voice and influence in the national affairs."

It is pleasant now, after an experience of forty years, to see how delusive all those doleful vaticinations have proved. We hear no complaints now that the wealthy classes and the great moneyed interests of the country are deprived of their legitimate influence in our parliamentary representation. The Rothschilds, the Barings, the Joneses, and the Crawfords have not been excluded from the house of commons. Sir Robert Inglis firmly believed that such a representative system as the reform bill established was never yet found to exist with a free press on one hand and a monarchy on another. On the very day when the commonwealth murdered their king, they voted the house of lords useless. The same thing, he predicted, would follow reform, as naturally as cause followed effect. Just in proportion as they increased the influence of the popular will, they risked the existence of the sovereign and the peers. The catastrophe might not happen in a day or two, but he was perfectly sure that if the measure were carried " it would sweep away the house of lords clean in the course of ten years." The popular will was let into the representation; it has even been extended since that time forty years have passed, and the house of lords stands as firmly as ever, upon as broad a basis, and with as lofty towers. And as to the monarchy, it is superfluous to say that it has lost none of its strength since it was deprived of the support of rotten boroughs, and that it has suffered nothing from the prevalence of the popular will in the legislation of the country.

On the 21st of March lord John Russell moved the second reading of the English reform bill. Sir Richard Vivian moved, as an amendment, that it be read a second time that day six months. There was nothing new in the debate that followed, though it lasted two nights. On the 22nd the division occurred. The second reading was carried by a majority of one. This was hailed with exultation by the conservatives, as equivalent to a defeat. But there were prophets who saw something ominous in this majority of one. They remembered that the first triumph of the tiers état in the national assembly, in 1789, when they constituted themselves a separate chamber, was carried by one. The house was the fullest on record up to that time, the numbers being 302 to 301, the speaker and the four tellers not included. A remarkable circumstance connected with the division was, that about two to one of the county members in England and Ireland were in favour of the bill. No less than sixty votes on the same side were for places to be disfranchised or reduced. Although in the house it was felt that the division was equivalent to a defeat, the reformers out of doors were not in the least disheartened; on the contrary, they became, if possible, more determined. The political unions redoubled their exertions, and the country assumed an attitude of defiance to the oligarchical classes which excited serious alarm, from which the king himself was not exempt. The pressure from without accumulated in force till it became something terrific, and it was evident to all reflecting men that the only alternative was reform or revolution.

On the 18th of April lord John Russell moved that the house should go into committee on the bill, stating that he proposed to make certain alterations in the details of the measure, but none affecting its principles. General Gascoyne then moved that it should be an instruction to the committee that the number of members composing the house of commons ought not to be reduced. The motion was seconded by Mr. Sadler, and resisted by lord Althorp, who declared that the object of the motion was to destroy the bill. It was nevertheless carried, after an animated debate, by a majority of eight against the government. Ministers had been placed in a position of peculiar difficulty - they had to humour the king's vanity and love of popular applause, in order to prevent his becoming sulky, and refusing to consent to a dissolution, which they felt to be inevitable. They had also to proceed with great caution in dealing with the opposition, lest, irritated by the threat of dissolution, they should resolve to stop the supplies, it being impossible to dissolve parliament in the present state of the estimates. They were fortunate enough, however, to guard against this danger. On the 23rd of March supply was moved, and a large portion Of the army estimates voted. On the 25th Sir James Graham moved portions of the navy estimates, and on the same night the civil list was provided for. On the 13th of March further supplies of various kinds were granted, and on the 30th the house was adjourned for the Easter holidays, till the 12th of April. The affairs of Ireland were then intrusted in the house of commons to the vigorous hands of Mr. Stanley (afterwards earl of Derby), who had been sent over as chief secretary with lord Anglesey, and whom, from his firmness in administering the law, Mr. O'Connell denounced as "scorpion Stanley." On the 24th of March Mr. Stanley moved the first reading of the bill to amend the representation of Ireland. A long and a violent debate ensued, in which Ireland was not so much thought of as the vast general interests involved in the impending revolution.

The lords, naturally, felt the most intense interest in the discussions that were proceeding in the commons, and longed for an opportunity to fling themselves into the great constitutional battle. At length, on the 28th of March, lord Wharncliffe made one, by moving for certain papers relative to the measure in the commons. In the course of an able speech, he made some important admissions. With regard to the feeling out of doors, he said: "Indeed, that feeling is more than strong - it is irresistible. It is impossible for any man who is not absolutely blind not to see that an administration which should be appointed upon the principle of withstanding all reform could no longer maintain its ground, and would be left, night after night, in constant minorities." He was for a reasonable amount of reform, which, in fact, could not be resisted; but he deprecated a dissolution under existing circumstances, which would bring together a "convention parliament - a mere house of delegates, for there would be no room for deliberation." When the bill came before the house of lords, backed by the results of a general election, he asked, would their lordships be able to refuse to assent to it? and said the house would be placed unfairly in a painful predicament. And he observed, if he could make his voice heard by the monarch on his throne, he would say, "If parliament should now be dissolved by his majesty's proclamation, it would place the house of lords in a most perilous situation." Lord Wharncliffe was answered by lord Durham, lord Plunket, and lord Brougham, and the result was a ministerial triumph, which added fresh fuel to the public excitement during the recess.

In the meantime the ministers had done what they could to make the king comfortable with regard to his revenue. They proposed £510,000 a-year for the civil list, instead of £498,480, as recommended by the committee, while the liberal jointure of £100,000 a-year was settled upon queen Adelaide. This gratified his majesty in the highest degree, and reconciled him to the dissolution. There was a story current at the time, that when the royal carriages were not ready to take him to the house of lords, the king said, "Then call a hackney coach." This story is now known to be an invention; and Mr. Roebuck - whose intimacy with lord Brougham, and his other opportunities of becoming acquainted with the real facts, render his authority unquestionable - gives the following account of the matter. It is certainly one of extraordinary interest. "On the morning of the 22nd, lord Grey and the lord chancellor waited on the king, in order to request him instantly to dissolve parliament. The necessity of a dissolution had long been foreseen and decided on by ministers; but the king had not yet been persuaded to consent to so bold a measure; and now the two chiefs of the administration were about to intrude themselves into the royal closet, not to advise and request a dissolution, but to request the king on a sudden, on that very day, and within a few hours, to go down and put an end to his parliament, in the midst of the session, and with all its ordinary business unfinished. The bolder mind of the chancellor took the lead, and lord Grey anxiously solicited him to manage the king on the occasion. So soon as they were admitted, the chancellor, with some care and circumlocution, propounded to the king the object they had in view. The startled monarch no sooner understood the drift of the chancellor's somewhat periphrastic statement, than he exclaimed, in wonder and anger against the very idea of such a proceeding, 'How is it possible, my lords, that I can, after this fashion, repay the kindness of parliament to the queen and myself? They have just granted me a most liberal civil list, and the queen a splendid annuity in case she survive me.' The chancellor confessed that they had, as regarded his majesty, been a liberal and wise parliament, but that, nevertheless, their further existence was incompatible with the peace and safety of the kingdom; and both he and lord Grey insisted upon the absolute necessity of their request, and that this request was in pursuance of a unanimous decision of the cabinet, and they felt themselves unable to conduct the affairs of the country in the present condition of parliament. ' But, my lords,' said the king, ' nothing is prepared; the great officers of state are not summoned.' 'Pardon me, sire,' said the chancellor, bowing with profound apparent humility; ' we have taken the great liberty of giving them to understand that your majesty commanded their attendance at the proper hour.' k But, my lords, the crown, the robes, and other things needed, are not prepared.' 'I entreat your majesty's pardon for my boldness; they are all prepared and ready, the proper officers being desired to attend in proper form and time.' 'But, my lords, you know the thing is wholly impossible; the guards, the troops have had no orders, and cannot be ready in time.' 'Pardon me, sire; we know how bold the step is, but presuming on your majesty's great goodness, and your anxious desire for the safety of your kingdom and the happiness of your people, I have given the order, and the troops are ready.' The king started in serious anger, flamed red in the face, and burst forth with, ' What, my lords? Have you dared to act thus? Such a thing was never heard of. You, my lord chancellor, ought to know that such an act is treason - high treason, my lord.' 'Yes, sire,' said the chancellor, ' I do know it, and nothing but my thorough knowledge of your majesty's great goodness, of your paternal anxiety for the good of your people, and my own solemn belief that the good of the state depends upon this day's proceedings, could have emboldened me to the performance of so unusual, and, in ordinary circumstances, improper proceeding. I am ready, in my own person, to bear all the blame and receive all the punishment which your majesty may deem meet; but I again entreat your majesty to listen to us, and follow our counsel.' After some further expostulations by both the ministers, the king cooled down, and consented. The speech to be delivered by him on the occasion was ready prepared, and in the chancellor's pocket. He agreed to it, and dismissed his ministers for the moment, with something between a menace and a joke on the audacity of their proceedings."

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Pictures for Chapter XIX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3

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