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


The Press - The Rev. Sydney Smith on the Boroughmongering System – Fonblanque - The Times - The Peers and the Chancellor - Lord Londonderry - Parliament and the Liberty of the Press - Illuminations on the Dissolution of Parliament - Violence of the Mob - Sir Walter Scott - The Windows of Apsley House broken - Organisation of the Reformers- Reform Candidate Society - Popular Thirst for Political Knowledge- Intense Public Spirit of the Nation - Visionary Expectations - The New Parliament - The Royal Speech - Debate on the Recent Dissolution - The State of Ireland - Mr. O'Connell - Mr. Stanley - Impolitic Treatment of the Irish Popular Chief - The Second Reform Bill - Lord John Russell's Speech - Debate on the Second Reading - Position of Sir Robert Peel - Discussions on the Reform Bill in Committee - The Chandos Clause - Proposed Representations of the Colonies - Household Suffrage - The Bill passed - Public Rejoicing - Illuminations - The Bill in the House of Lords - Debate on the Second Reading - Lord Grey's Speech: his Appeal to the Episcopal Bench: they vote against the People - Consequent Unpopularity of the Bishops - Speech of Lord Eldon: his Vaticinations - The Last Night of the Debate - Exasperation of the Public Mind - Outrages - The King stands by his Ministers - Vote of Confidence in the Commons - Prorogation of Parliament - The Royal Speech - Firmness of the Government - Bristol Riots.
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The press played a most important part in the agitation for reform. A host of the most witty, brilliant, and powerful writers of the day wielded their pens against monopoly with tremendous effect, assailing it with argument and ridicule, like a continual storm of shot and shell. Of these, the most distinguished was the Rev. Sydney Smith, who mingled argument, sarcasm, humour, and pathos, in his ardent advocacy of the popular cause, with a power and effect that made him a host in himself. In answer to the objection that the reform bill was a mere theory, he furnished the most telling illustrations from life, of the way in which the existing system kept down merit and damaged the public service. So far from reform being a mere theoretical improvement, he said, "I put it to every man who is himself embarked in a profession, or has sons in the same situation, if the unfair influence of borough- mongers has not perpetually thwarted him in his lawful career of ambition and professional emolument? 'I have been in three general engagements at sea,' said an old sailor; 'I have been twice wounded; I commanded the boats when the French frigate Astrolabe was cut out so gallantly.' 'Then, you are made a post captain? ' 'No, I was very near it, but lieutenant Thomson cut me out as .... parliament in shape of boroughs, and then to make laws to govern me? And how are these masses of power re-distributed? The eldest son of my lord has just come from Eton - he knows a good deal about AEneas and Dido, Apollo and Daphne - and that is all; and to this boy his father gives a six hundredth part of the power of making laws, as he would give him a horse, or a double-barrelled gun. Then Vellum the steward is put in - an admirable man: he has raised the estates, watched the progress of the family road and canal bills, and Vellum shall help to rule over the people of Israel. A neighbouring country gentleman, Mr. Plumkin, hunts with my lord, opens him a gate or two while the hounds are running, dines with my lord, agrees with my lord, wishes he could rival the Southdown sheep of my lord; and upon Plumkin is conferred a portion of the government. Then there is a distant relation of the same name in the county militia, with white teeth, who calls up the carriage at the Opera, and is always wishing O'Connell was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Then a barrister, who has written an article in the 'Quarterly,' and is very likely to speak and refute M'Culloch; and these five people, in whose nomination I have no more agency than I have in the nomination of the toll-keepers of the Bosphorus, are to make laws for me and my family - to put their hands in my purse, and to sway the future destiny of this country; and when the neighbours step in and beg permission to say a few words before these persons are chosen, there is a universal cry of ruin, confusion, and destruction. We have become a great people under Vellum and Plumkin. Under Vellum and Plumkin our ships have crossed the ocean - under Vellum and Plumkin our armies have secured the strength of the hills. To turn out Vellum and Plumkin is Hot reform, but revolution."

Another witty and brilliant writer, Mr. Fonblanque, rendered important services to the cause of reform by his writings in the Examiner, which have been collected under the name of " Seven Administrations." Though radical in its tendencies, he wrote, " Ministers have far exceeded our expectations. The plan of reform, though short of radical reform, tends to the utter destruction of Boroughmongering, and will prepare the way for a complete improvement. The ground, limited as it is, which it is proposed to clear and open with popular influence, will suffice, as the spot desired by Archimedes for the plant of the power which must ultimately govern the whole system. Without reform, convulsion is inevitable. Upon any reform further improvement is inevitably consequent, and the settlement of the constitution on the democratic basis certain."

At this period the Times was by far the greatest power of the newspaper press, and its advocacy of the cause of reform was distinguished by a vigour and boldness which rendered it obnoxious to the house of lords, and provoked an attack on the liberty of the press, that caused a great deal of excitement during the discussions on the first reform bill. As a specimen of its style of attack, one sentence may suffice. Referring to the borough nominees in parliament, a writer on the 14th of March said: - "It is beyond question a piece of the broadest and coolest effrontery in the world, for these liveried lacqueys of public delinquents to stand up as advocates of the disgraceful service they are embarked in." The house of lords noticed an attack by the Times upon themselves as libellous, and a breach of privilege. The chancellor advised them not to heed such attacks, and stated that the result of his experience in the house of commons was, that parliament never entered into such a contest with the press without repenting of it. But the very fact that he gave this prudent advice, caused them to adopt eagerly a contrary course. The bitterness of noble lords at this time broke out in small things, and was vented in unworthy insinuations against the lord chancellor, whose coming amongst them was regarded by the tory peers as an unwelcome intrusion. " On all occasions," says Mr. Roebuck, "they drew a broad and insulting distinction between him and lord Grey, of whom they always spoke with the most guarded courtesy, even whilst blaming his ministerial acts; but in the case of the chancellor the man and the minister were always confounded, and they sought to make him feel that, though among them, he was not of them. On the present occasion, lord Eldon and other peers, in the spirit of antagonism, gave the sanction of their authority to the declaration that the observations in the Times were libellous, and a breach of privilege, and declared that they would support the motion which lord Limerick had made, that Mr. Lawson, the printer of the Times, be ordered to attend at the bar. Lord Haddington darkly insinuated that the lord chancellor had something to do with the authorship of the articles in the public press upon the queen's well-known hostility to the reform bill. Lord Brougham, not noticing the insinuation, expressed his indignation that such articles had been written. Lord Londonderry, who was not a very cautious debater, praised lord Limerick for taking up the subject, censured the course proposed by the lord chancellor, and denounced the press as having become perfectly intolerable, and proceeded: ' On former occasions a similar course has been pursued, and I say that the article now before your lordships calls upon you to adopt this course; viz., that proposed by lord Limerick. Noble lords, in the libel before us, have been called " things; " and I would put it to your lordships to say, whether it is pleasant for any noble lord to be called a " thing " in a public newspaper. This is not all; for not only have your lordships been called u things," but you are designated as "things with human pretensions." No person can hesitate to say that the calling of a peer of this house "a thing," and "a thing with human pretensions," is a libel, and a breach of privilege.' "

Thus having given his opinion as to the nature of the libel, the noble marquis proceeded to point out the writer of it

" My lords, I say this article means every peer in this house. I say that this sentence applies to all your lordships. But is the noble lord, is any person making a speech in your lordships' house, to be called c a thing with human pretensions? ' I declare, my lords, in my view of the case, it is one of the greatest outrages that ever was published. I would defy any man to read the paragraph, and not direct it to the noble earl. The noble and learned lord on the woolsack says, that if this is an outrage, it had better be taken no notice of. If it is an outrage! I declare, my lords, when I heard the noble and learned lord on the woolsack deliver himself in this case, I thought that the noble and learned lord was a writer in the paper himself."

On the 19th Mr. Lawson was examined, and lord Wynford then moved, "That John Joseph Lawson, having admitted himself to be the printer of a false and scandalous libel, which had appeared in the Times newspaper of the 16th inst., be committed to Newgate during the pleasure of the house, and that he also pay a fine of £100 as a penalty for publishing the aforesaid libel."

This outrageous proposal at once roused up in opposition the lord chancellor, the duke of Wellington, the marquis of Lansdowne, and lord Grey. The motion was therefore amended, and Mr. Lawson was committed to the custody of the black rod, and ordered to attend on the next morning at ten. He did so, having first, through lord King, presented his petition. And thereupon ensued a debate, which, considering the state of the public mind at that time, was calculated to do irreparable mischief to the house in which it occurred. Lord Londonderry again renewed his attack on the lord chancellor, insinuating - if suck broad statements could be called insinuations - that he was the author of the libel.

" I say, my lords, we must then proceed to discover, and adequately to punish, the individual who masks himself under the unfortunate man at the bar. I would here observe, that if there are individuals connected together for the purpose of writing such offensive paragraphs in this or any other paper, I trust they will, if they have any feelings at all, sustain bitter pangs and reproaches within their minds when, on this occasion, they see your lordships inflict a punishment on their publisher and printer, who, perhaps, has been merely obliged to comply with the orders of his employers. I confess that, in this instance, when I saw the noble and learned lord on the woolsack - who, I thought, would have been the defender of your privileges, rather than a supporter of their infringers - when I saw him, I say, last night placing himself between the house and such an offender, for the purpose of shielding the latter, I really was almost disposed to believe that the noble and learned lord was acting as counsel for the defendant in this proceeding." This brought up the chancellor, who demanded of the noble marquis to drop vague insinuations, and come to charges. u I never use insinuations," said the lord chancellor; u I never use insinuations, I always bring direct charges. I would rather have the noble lord's open hostility than his covert enmity. I am sure he is incapable of persisting in insinuations - the noble lord has too much honour and high-mindedness for that; therefore, as the noble lord has hinted at something or nothing, I put myself upon my defence before your lordships; and I call on the noble marquis to charge me with something."

Lords Wynford, Eldon, and Tenterden all declared that the house had power to find the person charged guilty of a libel, and to punish him with fine and imprisonment. The ex-chief justice Tenterden rashly gave his reasons for this opinion, and betrayed his ignorance of the law - thus giving the lord chancellor a vantage ground, which enabled him to rout the whole phalanx of law lords. Lord Tenterden said: -

" I must declare that I think the right of your lordships to the exercise of this privilege is clear, distinct, and indisputable. And why was this power conferred? It was conferred, my lords, not for the protection of those who possess it - not for the sake of the house of lords - not for the sake of the house of commons - not for the sake of the courts of law, all of whom are in equal possession of the power; but for the sake of the nation at large.... These, my lords, are the reasons why the two houses of parliament, and why courts of law, possess this power; these are the reasons why each of them ought to possess it; and I am quite sure that if they, and especially the two houses of parliament, did not possess this power of vindicating themselves, it would be impossible that their respective duties could be performed with dignity to themselves or with advantage to the country."

" Marmont's false move at Salamanca," says Mr. Roebuck, " was not a more flagrant mistake than this declaration on the part of lord Tenterden; the duke of Wellington's swoop down from the Arapiles was not more crushing and decisive than the triumphant and vehement reply of the lord chancellor.

"The lord chancellor's original position was that the possession of the power to fine and imprison for breach of privilege by the house of lords was, in his opinion, very doubtful; that of the impolicy of exercising such power he had no doubt at all; and all this he set forth clearly, forcibly, and in a manner most calculated to produce an extraordinary effect upon the mind of the public out of doors. The chief justice at this moment introduced himself into the debate to diminish this effect, and to shield his friend, lord Wynford, who had first proposed this reckless, unjust, and most impolitic proceeding. He (the chief justice) asserted, in the terms above stated, that both houses of parliament had this same power, and without it they could not legislate for the country. Now, it is notorious to every tyro in the laws of parliament that the house of commons has not the power. Whatever doubt any one may feel as regards the lords, there is none in the mind of any one who is competent to give an opinion as to the power of the house of commons - that house cannot fine, and cannot imprison for a time certain. The lord chief justice utterly destroyed the authority and worth of his opinion, by thus basing it upon a statement utterly erroneous in point of law, and clearly disproved as matter of fact by the experience of every day. But the world out of doors were deeply moved by the whole proceeding. They trembled to think what might be their fate if again a corrupt, irresponsible, and arbitrary house of commons should be leagued with the lords against the people, to whom the refuge of the courts of law would no longer exist. The scene of that night incited the many- headed press to still farther exertions, by clearly showing that its destruction would assuredly be the consequence of defeat upon this now vital question of reform. Mr. Lawson was on the next day reprimanded and released."

Such was the state of public feeling that preceded the dissolution of parliament. That event was the signal for the wildest exultation and triumph among the people. There was a general illumination in London, sanctioned by the lord mayor. In Edinburgh, and other cities where the civic authorities did not order it, the reform clubs took upon themselves to guide the people in their public rejoicings. In many places the populace broke the windows of those who refused to illuminate; and in some cases those who did comply had their windows smashed, if suspected of tory principles. In Scotland the mobs are said to have been peculiarly violent. Sir Archibald Alison states that the windows of his brother, professor Alison, whose life had been devoted to the relief of the poor, though illuminated, " were utterly smashed in five minutes, as were those of above a thousand others of the most respectable citizens." The lord provost of Edinburgh was seized by the mob on the day of the election, who tried to throw him over the North Bridge, a height of ninety feet - a crime for which the ringleaders were afterwards convicted and punished by the judiciary court. The military were called out, but withdrawn at the request of the lord advocate Jeffrey. At Ayr, he says, "the conservative voters had to take refuge in the town hall, from which they were escorted by a body of brave whigs, who, much to their honour, had them conveyed to a steam-boat." "No person anywhere in Scotland could give his vote for the conservative candidate." At Lanark a dreadful riot occurred, and the conservative candidate was seriously wounded in the church where the election was going forward. At Dumbarton the tory candidate, lord William Graham, only escaped death by being concealed in a garret, where he lay hid the whole day. At Jedburgh a band of ruffians hooted the dying Sir Walter Scott. " I care for you no more," said he, " than for the hissing of geese." Sir Walter, in his diary, says: - " The mob were exceedingly vociferous and brutal, as they usually are now- a-days. The population gathered in formidable numbers - a thousand from Hawick - sad blackguards. I left the burgh in the midst of abuse and the gentle hints of burke Sir Walter!'" In London the windows in the houses of the leading anti-reformers were all broken. The duke of Wellington was not spared in this raid against the opponents of popular rights. The windows of Apsley House were smashed with volleys of stones. It happened, unfortunately, that the duchess lay dead within at the time. She had expired just as the booming of the guns in St. James's Park announced the approach of the king to dissolve parliament. The crowd knew nothing of this. The duke, however, was determined that he would not suffer an outrage like this another time. He had iron shutters put up, so as to guard every window which was liable to be assailed, either from Piccadilly or Hyde Park; "and to the day of his death they remained," says Mr. Gleig, " a monument, so to speak, of the intemperance of a misguided people, and of the apathy or complicity of the government, who took no steps to restrain it." Mr. Gleig might have spared this imputation on the government.

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

William IV. and lord Brougham and Grey
William IV. and lord Brougham and Grey >>>>
View of Ayr
View of Ayr >>>>
Earl Grey
Earl Grey >>>>
The Bristol reform riots
The Bristol reform riots >>>>
London Bridge
London Bridge >>>>

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