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


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The organisation of the reformers, in preparation for the elections, was more general and perfect than anything of the kind recorded in the history of England. That in such a vast, deep-reaching, and mighty movement, stirring society to its lowest depths, and heaving to the surface some of its foulest elements, there should have been violence and outrage, was a result to be expected; and it is questionable whether, in the temper of the times, a parade of military power to repress the ebullitions of popular feeling might not have led to disastrous consequences. The manifestation of public spirit and self-sacrifice on the part of the reformers was very extraordinary. It was an uprising of the whole population, guided for the most part by its highest intelligence and worth, in order to wrest its rights and privileges from a grasping and defiant oligarchy, whose selfish interests stood in the way of just government, political equity, and social progress. In London large sums were subscribed, and placed in the hands of men of trustworthy character, in order that the popular candidates might be effectually assisted where money was wanted. In every place which had the right of returning members was established a reform committee, which was indefatigable in its exertions. A society was established, called "The Parliamentary Candidate Society," not for the purpose of supplying candidates, but of furnishing information about those that offered, telling the world all about their speeches, their votes, and their public conduct, if they had been previously members; if they were new candidates, unknown to the public, their characters and connections were all accurately described for the benefit of the constituencies which they addressed. This society was denounced by the tories as a fearful omen of revolution, and a monstrous outrage on the constitution. The whig borough proprietors and landlords stood by the reform party firmly, and used all their influence in supporting ministerial candidates. The " Quarterly Review," and the tory press generally, proclaimed abroad that the nation was in the throes of a revolution, and that the end of the world was coming. There was nothing in England like it since the great rebellion, and it was well if the country was not about to pass through horrors similar to those of the French revolution. One of the most remarkable signs of those times was the popular thirst for knowledge that inspired the masses. In remote hamlets, in solitary farmhouses, in humble cottages, hardworking men were found clubbing their earnings to purchase a newspaper, in order that they might learn what was going on in the country. They walked miles in the evenings and on Sundays, in order to meet in little clubs, where one of their number read the parliamentary debates, or the speeches of candidates, by the light of a solitary candle. They knew all about the champions of reform, their antecedents, their characters, their difficulties, and their achievements. The maxim that " Union is strength," was exemplified to a marvellous extent on this occasion. Noblemen, landed gentry, merchants, capitalists, manufacturers joined the political unions, and were astonished to meet there amongst the operatives, electors and non-electors, men of superior intelligence, clear judgment, and sound sense. When face to face in their meetings with their neighbours of lower degree, men of the upper classes learned much. " They were startled," says Miss Martineau, "by sudden apparitions of men of mind superior to their own - men of genius and heroism, rising up from the most depressed ranks of non- electors; and they in their turn were found to be imbued with that respect for men as men, which is the result of superior education, but which the poor and depressed too often conceive not to exist among the idle independent, whom they are apt to call the proud. Such was the preparation going forward throughout the country while the ministers were at work in London - the rapid social education of all ranks, which may be regarded as another of the ever-springing blessings of the peace, and by which the great transition from the old to the new parliamentary system was rendered safe."

It was a natural effect of this extraordinary excitement that visionary expectations should prevail with regard to the blessings of parliamentary reform. The rhetorical exaggerations of excited orators were taken by the multitude as literally true. The nation was to be enriched by a fair representation of the people in parliament, and every one expected that a stream from the great fountain of wealth would bring extraordinary prosperity to his own home, while all the grievous burdens that now pressed on the springs of industry would be lightened or removed. Rack-rents would be reduced, oppressive taxes would be abolished, the demand for shop goods would be doubled or trebled, wages would be raised, and the general sum of human happiness would be vastly increased. " All young ladies imagine," said Sydney Smith, " that as soon as this bill is carried, they will be instantly married; schoolboys believe that gerunds and supines will be abolished, and that currant tarts must ultimately come down in price; the corporal and the sergeant are sure of double pay; bad poets expect a demand for their epics; and fools will be disappointed, as they always are."

The general election brought a large accession of strength to the reform party. The new parliament met on the 21st of June, and Mr. Manners Sutton was again elected speaker. In the speech from the throne, the king said, " Having had recourse to the dissolution of parliament, for the purpose of ascertaining the sense of my people on the expediency of a reform in the representation, I have now to recommend that important question to your earliest and most attentive consideration, confident that, in any measures which you may prepare for its adjustment, you will adhere to the acknowledged principles of the constitution, by which the rights of the crown, the authority of both houses of parliament, and the rights and liberties of the people are equally secured." The usual assurances were then given of the friendly disposition of all foreign powers; reference was made to the contest then going on in Poland, to the Belgian revolution, and the right of its people to regulate their own affairs, so long as the exercise of it did not endanger the security of neighbouring states. A paragraph was devoted to Portugal, lamenting that diplomatic relations with its government could not be re-established, though a fleet had been sent to enforce our demands of satisfaction. Strict economy was recommended, in the stereotype phraseology of royal speeches. Having referred to reduction of taxation, the state of the revenue, and to his desire to assist the industry of the country, by legislation on sound principles, the speech described the appearance of Asiatic cholera, and the precautions that had been taken to prevent its introduction into this country. The remainder of the speech was devoted to Ireland, where "local disturbances, unconnected with political causes/' had taken place in various districts, especially in Clare, Galway, and Roscommon, for the repression of which the constitutional authority of the law had been vigorously and successfully applied; and thus the necessity of enacting new laws to strengthen the executive had been avoided, to avert which, the king said, would ever be his most earnest desire.

Addresses were agreed to in both houses without a division. The only discussion of interest that took place in connection with them referred to the dissolution, and the circumstances under which it occurred. The opposition denounced it as an impolitic proceeding, bearing the appearance of a revolutionary coup d'Útat. They charged the lord chancellor with making a false statement, in alleging that the commons had stopped the supplies, which, if true, was not the real cause of the dissolution, the cabinet having previously resolved upon that measure. Some of the ministers also, in their addresses to their constituencies - Sir James Graham, for example - conveyed the same injurious impression, stating that "the last division, which had the effect of delaying the supplies, left no alternative but that of abandoning the bill, or of appealing to the people." With this "factious" conduct the tory candidates were taunted at the elections, and they complained that they suffered in consequence much unmerited odium. The chancellor denied the imputation. Not only had the ministers decided upon the measure of dissolution, but the requisite commission had been actually prepared; and lord Brougham said," Knowing this, I must have been the veriest dolt and idiot in the creation, if I had said what has been attributed to me. I stated a fact - that the dissolution being resolved upon, if there were wanting any justification for the step, the conduct of the house of commons the night before furnished ample justification for that proceeding/- But the truth is, the opposition were smarting under the sense of defeat; they had been out-manoeuvred by lord Grey, and defeated by the use of their own tactics.

Another ground of attack upon the government at the opening of the session was their conduct in not bringing up Mr. O'Connell for judgment. It was alleged that they had entered into a corrupt compromise with the great Irish agitator, in order to avert his hostility and secure his support at the elections. This was indignantly denied both by Mr. Stanley and lord Plunket. They contended that as the act expired with the parliament, so did the conviction, and that Mr. O'Connell could not be legally punished. This was the opinion of the law officers of the crown in Ireland, an opinion in which the English law officers concurred. Mr. Stanley said: - " Not only was there no collusion or compromise, but I should have been most glad if Mr. O'Connell could have been brought up for judgment; but then we have been told that we ought not to have dissolved parliament, because by so doing Mr. O'Connell had escaped. Now, no man can be more sensible than I am of the importance of showing to the people of Ireland that if Mr. O'Connell chooses to go beyond the law, he is not above the law; but, without meaning the slightest disrespect to Mr. O'Connell, I must say that if I put on the one hand the success of a great and important measure like the reform bill, and on the other the confinement of Mr. O'Connell in his majesty's gaol of Kilmainham for three, six, or nine months, I must say that what became of Mr. O'Connell was as the dust in the balance. Besides, the impression of the supremacy of the law was made upon the people by the fact of the verdict having been obtained against him, and an immediate change was wrought in the system of agitation, which, indeed, ceased. Such being the case, the question of what might be the personal consequences to any individual by the dissolution became of still less importance than it was before." On this speech Mr. Roebuck makes some judicious reflections, which apply equally to other passages of Mr. O'Connell's life: - "Mr. Stanley knew well when he launched this barbed and poisoned shaft the pain he was about to inflict, the anger he would inevitably create. Th÷ pleasure of giving this offence to Mr. O'Connell was too great a temptation for Mr. Stanley's small stock of prudence and forbearance. The immediate enjoyment and triumph were all his own; the mischief that followed was felt by his colleagues and his country. Had this favourable opportunity been taken advantage of, had the ministry conciliated Mr. O'Connell, the peace of Ireland might have been secured, the coercion bill would never have been called for, or thought necessary, and the whig administration would have escaped the disastrous consequences of that fatal measure - fatal alike to the stability of their cabinet and the welfare of the United Kingdom." They had another excellent opportunity of conciliation, without any violation of consistency, when Mr. O'Connell was lord mayor of Dublin. During his year of office, the viceregal court was completely estranged from the chief magistrate of the city, which he no doubt keenly felt; but when it lavished its attentions upon his successor, Mr. George Roe, he could no longer control his vexation, feeling that the slight was not only put upon him personally, but upon the church and people of which he was the champion. He accordingly introduced the repeal agitation into the Dublin corporation, and commenced a monster debate, which lasted several days, in defiance of the earnest remonstrances of the lord mayor, one of the most enlightened liberals and steady friends of the Roman catholics to be found in the ranks of the Irish protestants.

On the 24th of June, lord John Russell proposed his second edition of the reform bill. His speech on this occasion was a perfect contrast to the one with which he introduced the measure at first. There was no longer any hesitation or timidity. He was no longer feeling his way doubtfully in an untried path, or navigating without compass along a dangerous coast. He boldly launched out to sea, with his eye steadily fixed on the north star, certain of his course, and confident of the issue. The discussions of the previous session had thrown a flood of light upon the whole question. Sustained by the enthusiasm of the people, and animated by the sympathy of the majority around him on the ministerial benches, he spoke as if a greater and more vigorous mind had taken possession of his frame. He was strong in argument, cutting in sarcasm, defiant in tone, powerful in declamation. Borne by the power of public opinion to a higher and more commanding position, and proudly conscious of the elevation, he seemed ashamed of the petty proposals of former years, and felt his heart as well as his intellect expanding to the greatness of the new position. The bill was read a first time without opposition, the discussion being expressly reserved by Sir Robert Peel for the second reading, which was fixed for the 4th of July. In the meantime, the Irish bill was brought in by Mr. Stanley on the 30th of June, Messrs. O'Connell and Sheil complaining bitterly of the difference existing, to the disadvantage of Ireland, between the proposed plans of reform for the two countries. On the following day the lord advocate brought in the bill relating to Scotland.

On the 4th of July, lord John Russell moved the second reading of the English reform bill. A debate of three nights followed, containing little or no novelty in the argument, nothing but a wearisome repetition of points that had been discussed all over the country, hundreds of times, during the last few months. The most interesting feature was the position of Sir Robert Peel, who unfortunately placed himself in the front of the battle against reform, in which he proved himself so able a general, that as enlightened friends of the country must have lamented his false position. Mr. Roebuck, writing in 1849, says: - " Sir Robert Peel, for the first time in his life, met a really hostile house of commons, and showed, by the dexterity with which he managed the prejudices and conciliated the good will of his opponents, that seldom in that house had there been seen any one more skilful in that curious species of disputative warfare which occurs in deliberative assemblies. To wise forethought, to large and generous views, to philosophy, to eloquence, the right honourable gentleman could lay no claim on this occasion. Astuteness, quickness, dexterity, and a certain plausibility that appeared like wisdom - all these were his. But looking at his conduct as that of a statesman, whose aim and purpose in life was the good of his country, his whole course of conduct was a glaring error. All his anticipations of evil have been signally belied, and he now stands a living witness of his own grievous mistake, both as regards his own position and the future destinies of his country. The convulsions with which he threatened us, as the necessary consequence of the reform bill, have not occurred. The internal condition of this country and its external relations have received no shock from the change which he so vehemently deprecated. The obedience of the people to the law is as great as ever; the wisdom and intelligence of the more instructed among us still guide and direct us. We are, in short, still a peaceful, enlightened, and improving people. If, then, the threatening denunciations of Sir Robert Peel were really believed by himself, certain it is he was most completely mistaken; if they were the mere artifice of an unscrupulous rhetorician, they have received a most signal rebuke." In a note, Mr. Roebuck adds the expression of an opinion from which few men will now be found to dissent - " There is not a shadow of reason for believing that Sir Robert Peel was not really in earnest. Being a man he was subject to error, and this was the capital mistake of his life."

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Pictures for Chapter XX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 2

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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