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


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Another cause of the general uneasiness and depression of the public mind was the appearance, in the autumn of this year, of the mysterious visitant, cholera morbus. This disease had been long known in India, but it was only of late years that it began to extend its ravages over the rest of the world. It followed the great tracks of commerce, or the march of armies, stealing slowly along the banks of rivers, the great roads and lines of traffic, and attacking city after city in succession. No barriers, no military cordons, no quarantines were able to arrest its progress. It was the pestilence walking in darkness, penetrating unseen, crossing rivers, mountains, deserts, and seas. Within two years it had carried off nearly a million of people in Asia. It made its first appearance in England at Sunderland, on the 26th of October, 1831. Its name had come before, spreading terror in every direction. The stories of its sudden effects, its dreadful ravages, its fatal power of quickly transforming vigour and beauty into utter weakness and agony, and of producing hideous defacement, had an appalling influence on persons of weak nerves, and diffused a contagion of alarm throughout all circles. They read of relatives flying from the couch of its victims; of whole families falling in rapid succession; of the rites of sepulture being abandoned to hirelings; of corpses being shot coffinless, in cart-loads, into unconsecrated holes; and they trembled at the approach of the dreadful plague to their own neighbourhoods. It appeared in Edinburgh on February 6th, 1832, at Rotherhithe and Limehouse on February 13th, and in Dublin on March 3rd, 1832. In all these places, and in many others, the mortality was very great. But it was still more severe on the continent. The deaths in Paris alone, between March and August, were no less than 18,000. But the fears of the community exaggerated the dangers of cholera just as they exaggerated the dangers of revolution. We know now that cholera could have been in a great measure averted, and that its mystery lay in our ignorance. We know that it always fell most heavily on the inhabitants of towns, hamlets, or houses where deficient drainage and ventilation, accumulations of putrescent matters, intemperance, and want of personal cleanliness most prevailed. It selected for the scenes of its habitation and its triumphs the usual haunts of typhus fever; and it effected its greatest ravages in the neighbourhoods of rivers and marshes. In London it was most virulent on the level of the Thames, and lost its power in exact arithmetical ratio to the height of the districts above that level. If it attacked a town or an army, and the inhabitants or the soldiers decamped, and scattered themselves over the country, in the clear air and pure sunshine, they escaped. It was possible, therefore, to guard against its power by a proper system of drainage and sewage; by proper ventilation; by personal cleanliness, temperance, and regularity; by the abolition of nuisances, stagnant pools, and open ditches; and by wholesome regimen and regular exercise in the open air. It is by attention to such means - that is, by cleansing away all filthiness, and by draining off all corruption - that public health is maintained, and that communities may bid defiance to the plague. It is even so with the plague of revolution. It was rendered formidable, Lt was attracted by political corruption. It was to be averted by throwing open our close boroughs to the light and air of freedom, by ventilating our electoral system, by draining the swamps of political corruption, and by subjecting the body politic to the influence of proper sanitary arrangements. This is just what the Reform Bill did for the British constitution. It was what lord Grey, lord Brougham, lord John Russell, and their colleagues felt to be absolutely necessary for the salvation of their country - to prevent political collapse; and what the duke of Wellington and his colleagues could not see, because they were still ignorant of social science, inhaling the morbific influence of that system which they laboured so strenuously to perpetuate.

It was a very busy time in the political world, that brief recess between the prorogation and the re-assembling of parliament in the last month of 1831. The old tory party had been broken up; but a new combination was spontaneously formed around the duke of Wellington, who was regarded as a rock breasting the fierce waves of revolution. Of this new party each individual had a scheme to propose, a doubt to solve, or a suggestion to make; and the duke was constrained by a sense of duty to answer all their communications, which, with all his well-known brevity, caused an incessant occupation of his time, and a severe strain upon his faculties. He was at his desk at six o'clock in the morning writing letters, and still continued to write after dinner in the drawing-room, while Walmer Castle was full of guests, regardless of the buzz of conversation around him. He did not forget that the alarmists, who were now pressing upon him for guidance and protection, were the very men who had chased him from office a short time before. "You see how they come about me," he once observed; " they never were satisfied till they got rid of me as a minister, and now they want me to put my neck in the halter for them, as if I cared one farthing for their personal influence, or for their boroughs either, except that I know the importance of the latter."

As the government was determined to persevere, and to carry the reform bill by means of a large creation of peers, if necessary, some of the leading members of the opposition in the upper house began to think seriously of their position, a sort of appeal having been made to them, in a letter from the king's private secretary, suggesting the prudence of compromise and concession, in order to save his majesty from the painful alternative of a creation of peers. Accordingly, lords Wharncliffe and Harrowby put themselves in communication with lord Grey, and this fact was announced by the former in a letter to the- duke of Wellington, stating that he entertained good hope of being able to arrange such a plan of compromise as would prevent the necessity of a second rejection of the bill by the lords, and so enable them to alter and amend it when it came into committee. The duke, in reply to this, said that he was glad of a possibility of an arrangement by mutual concession on the reform question; and that, for his part, all that he desired to see, under the new system, was a chance of a government for this hitherto prosperous, happy, and great country, which should give security to life and property hereafter. " The political unions," he said, " had assumed an organisation which any man who could read would pronounce to be for military purposes, and nothing else. Their creed was only so far better than that of the United Irishmen of 1798, that they did not attempt to keep it secret; and this was no merit, because secrecy would deprive them of one of their most efficient instruments - namely, terror. He was, therefore, for putting down the unions with a strong hand. That once done, the reform of parliament might be considered with honour and safety, if not with advantage. Till those unions were put down, it did not signify much, in reality, what course was taken." In the meantime, lord Wharncliffe had waited by appointment upon the prime minister at his house, in Sheen, where he discussed the reform question with him for two hours, without ever adverting to the political unions, and he reported the issue in a long letter to the duke of Wellington. The result was that lord Grey made some trifling concessions in matters of detail, and that in return lord Wharncliffe gave him the assurance that he would do what he could to bring the opposition lords to take a more favourable view of the ministerial scheme and its probable consequences. This was followed by cordial shaking of hands, and permission was given on either side to communicate with intimate friends and colleagues. The duke of Wellington, however, declined to take any part in those deliberations. He believed that the government could be carried on, though with difficulty, under the existing system; but under the system which the reform bill would introduce, he doubted if the government could be carried on at all. On the other hand, lord Wharncliffe forcibly pub the case of continued resistance. To what could it lead? The house of lords by its rejection of the bill, had given the country an opportunity of expressing its will. But all the demonstrations had been violently against the peers, scarcely any in their favour; and where any support had been feebly shown, it was with the condition that important concessions should be made. Where, then, was the battle to be fought? Was the house of lords to fight against the crown, the government, the commons, and the country? This was impossible. But the duke was still intractable. Lord Wharncliffe, he said, seemed to have forgotten "that the king and his government had entered apparently into combination with the mob for the destruction of property. Consequently, even magistrates were afraid to do their duty; and if gentlemen came forward to express the sentiments which all the world knew they entertained, they ran the risk of being hunted through their own parks and gardens. This was, perhaps, an allusion to what had occurred to lord Wharncliffe himself, in Yorkshire, when it was said he narrowly escaped with his life, after the adverse decision in the lords. Lord Wharncliffe persevered in his efforts to change the duke's mind, but in vain. What his grace feared, he said, was " the destruction of the race of gentlemen in the country, and, with them, of its glory, its honour, and its prosperity. For it was a fallacy to believe that any class - least of all, the lowest - would benefit by that catastrophe. He defied all the political economists in the world to provide for more than 22,000,000 of people half so well as all the classes of the population were provided for at that moment." If the bill were to pass, even with lord Wharncliffe's improvement, " neither lord Grey, nor any nobleman of his circle, nor any gentleman of his caste, would govern the country six weeks after the reformed parliament met." Nothing came of lord Wharncliffe's negotiation with the government, which declined to make any material concession. It had the effect, however, of splitting the conservative party in the upper house, breaking the phalanx of the opposition, and thus preparing the way for the triumph of the government.

So strongly did the latter feel the urgency of the case, that parliament was called together again on the 6th of December. It was opened by the king in person, who, in his speech, recommended the speedy settlement of the reform question; referred to the opposition made to the payment of tithes in Ireland; announced the conclusion of a convention with France for the suppression of the African slave trade; deplored the outrages at Bristol; and recommended improvements in the municipal police of the kingdom. On the 12th, lord John Russell introduced the reform bill the third time. It is said that his manner, like his proposal, had undergone a striking alteration. His opening speech was not now a song of triumph, inspired by the joyous enthusiasm of the people. He no longer treated the opposition in a tone of almost contemptuous defiance. The spirit which had dictated the celebrated reply to the Birmingham political union about the voice of the nation and the whisper of a faction, seemed to have died within him. The feeling gradually stole upon him and his friends "that they had raised a too mighty spirit - one which would soon be unawed by their exorcism; and which might, in its fury, destroy the whole order to which the noble lord and most of his colleagues belonged, making no distinction between friend or foe." No longer anxious to excite and inflame, he dwelt upon the advantages that would be produced by reform, and spoke of the danger of farther resistance in a tone of unfeigned alarm. He used this topic now, not as a rhetorical weapon, but as a terrible truth - u one appalling to himself and his friends; and in accents of sincere, unsimulated affright, he besought his aristocratic opponents to forego their resistance."

Lord John Russell proceeded to explain the changes and modifications that had been made in the bill since it was last before the house. As the census of 1831 was new available, the census of 1821 was abandoned. But a new element was introduced in order to test the claim of a borough to be represented in parliament. Numbers alone were no longer relied upon. There might be a very populous town, consisting of a mass of mean houses, inhabited by poor people. With numbers, therefore, the government took property, ascertained by the amount of assessed taxes; and upon the combination of these two elements the franchise was based. The calculations necessary to determine the standard were worked out by lieutenant Drummond, afterwards under-secretary for Ireland. Upon the information obtained by the government as to the limits of each borough, its population, and the amount of assessed taxes it paid, he made out a series of a hundred boroughs, beginning with the lowest, and taking the number of houses, and the amount of their assessed taxes together, as the basis of their relative importance. Thus Schedule A was framed. In the original bill, this schedule contained sixty boroughs; in the present bill, it contained only fifty-six. The consequence of taking Mr. Drummond's report as a basis of disfranchisement was, that some boroughs, which formerly escaped as populous and large, were now placed in Schedule A; while others, which were better towns, were taken out of that schedule and placed in Schedule B, which now contained only thirty instead of forty boroughs, as in the former bill. The diminution in this schedule, consisting of boroughs whose members were to be reduced from two to one, was owing to the fact that the government had given up the point about reducing the number of members in the house of commons, which was to remain as before, 658. Thus a number of small boroughs escaped which ought to have but one member each - so small, that every one of them ought to have been in Schedule A, that their members might be given to new, prosperous, and progressive communities. Twenty-three members were now to be distributed. Ten were given to the largest towns placed in the original Schedule B, one to Chatham, one to the county of Monmouth, and the rest to the large towns, which, by the former bill, obtained power to return one member only. The new bill retained the 10 qualification. Every man who occupied a house of the value of 10 a-year was to have a vote, provided he was rated for the poor. It was not the rating, however, that determined the value; it did not matter to what amount he was rated, if only at 5 or 1, if the holding was really worth 10 a-year.

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

The Earl of Durham
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Great Reform demonstration at Birmingham
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