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


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The Government at once sent Dr. Lindley and Dr. Playfair, two men of science, to Ireland, in the hope that they might be able to suggest remedies for staying the progress of the disease, or preserve that portion of the crop which was still untainted; and the consular agents in different parts of Europe and of America were directed to make inquiries and endeavour to obtain a supply of sound potatoes for seed; indeed, the seed question was even more important than that more immediately pressing one, of how the people were to bo fed. In addition to this, early in October, they secretly gave orders for the purchase abroad of 100,000 worth of Indian corn, to be conveyed to Irish ports for distribution among the people. These measures, however, proved of little avail, and meanwhile it became evident that in a great portion of the United Kingdom a famine was inevitable, which could not fail to influence the price of provisions of all kinds elsewhere. During this time it became known that the harvest, about which opinions had fluctuated so much, would be everywhere deficient. The friends of Sir Robert Peel in the Cabinet who shared his free trader tendencies knew then how impossible it was that the already tottering system of the corn laws could be any longer maintained. The Ministers had scarcely reached the country seats in which they looked for repose, after the labours of the session, ere the cry of " Open the ports " was raised throughout the kingdom; but except three, none of them took the Minister's view of the gravity of the crisis. All knew that the ports once open, public opinion would probably for ever prevent the re-introduction of the duties, and the majority of the Cabinet for a time still adhered to their Protectionist principles.

The magnitude of the interests at stake, the difficulty of estimating the real character and extent of the threatened evil, and the alarming consequences which must ensue, if the worst fears should be realised, rendered immediate action necessary. A Cabinet Council was held on the 31st of October. From what passed on that occasion, says Sir Robert Peel, in the account which he has left of these events, "it was easy to foresee that there was little prospect of a common accord as to the measures to be adopted." On the 5th of November he apprised Her Majesty of the probability of serious differences of opinion. At the adjourned meeting of the Cabinet, on the 6th of November, he submitted certain proposals for the consideration of his colleagues, which he has recorded in the following outline of these events: -

Cabinet Memorandum, November 6.

" To issue forthwith an order in council remitting the duty on grain in bond to one shilling, and opening the ports for the admission of all species of grain at a smaller rate of duty until a day named in the order.

" To call Parliament together on the 27th instant, to ask for indemnity and a sanction of the order by law.

"To propose to Parliament no other measure than that during the sitting before Christmas. To declare an intention of submitting to Parliament immediately after the recess a modification of the existing law, but to decline entering into any details in Parliament with regard to such modification.

"Such modification to include the admission, at a nominal duty, of Indian corn and of British colonial corn."

The Cabinet, by a very considerable majority, declined giving its assent to the proposals which the Minister thus made to them. They were supported by only three members of the Cabinet - the Earl of Aberdeen, Sir James Graham, and Mr. Sidney Herbert. The other members of the Cabinet, some on the ground of objection to the principle of the measures recommended, others upon the ground that there was not yet sufficient evidence of the necessity for them, withheld their sanction.

" On account of the gravity of the question ( says Sir R. Peel), and the smallness of the minority assenting to my views, I might, perhaps have been justified in at once relinquishing office; but, after mature reflection, considering that the rejection of my proposals was not a peremptory one by all of those who for the present declined to adopt them, that additional information might materially abate the objections of many, and that the dissolution of a Government on account of differences on such a matter as that under consideration must cause great excitement in the public mind, I determined to retain office until there should be the opportunity of re-consideration of the whole subject. That opportunity would necessarily recur at the latter end of this current month (November), when it was agreed that the Cabinet should again assemble. In determining to retain office for the present, I determined also not to recede from the position which I had taken, and ultimately to resign office if I should find on the re-assembling of the Cabinet that the opinions I had expressed did not meet with general concurrence. I determined also, in order to guard against the mischievous consequences of failure in such an undertaking, not to attempt the adjustment of the question at issue, unless there should be a moral assurance of ultimate success. It was most painful to me to differ from colleagues with whom I had hitherto acted in uninterrupted harmony, for whom I had sincere personal regard, and cordial esteem and respect founded on an intimate knowledge of their motives and conduct in the discharge of their respective duties."

On the 2nd of November the following letter was addressed to the Minister by Lord Stanley, containing an exposition of the grounds on which he dissented from the proposals submitted to the Cabinet: -

[Secret.] " Colonial Office, November 2, 1845.

" My dear Peel, - I find it difficult to express to you the regret with which I see how widely I differ in opinion with Graham and yourself as to the necessity for proposing to Parliament a repeal of the corn laws. Since the Cabinet on Saturday, I have reflected much and anxiously upon it; but I cannot bring my mind to any other conclusion than that at which I had then arrived. I have thought it best to put down in writing the view of the case which presents itself to me; and when you have read it, I will thank you to send it on to Graham, with whom I have had no conversation upon it. I foresee that this question, if you persevere in your present opinion, must break up the Government one way or the other; but I shall greatly regret indeed if it should be broken up, not in consequence of our feeling that we had proposed measures which it properly belonged to others to carry, but in consequence of differences of opinion among ourselves."

The purport of these Cabinet Councils was generally understood by the country; but as yet only the most sanguine anticipated the proposal of Sir Robert Peel, when the Times newspaper on the 4th of December announced, apparently from secret information, that it was the intention of the Government to repeal the corn laws, and to call Parliament together in January for that purpose. The assertion was received with incredulity, not only by the Opposition, but by the Ministerial journals. One organ of the Tory party placarded its office with a bill, headed "Atrocious fabrication of the Times! "But the latter journal, on the following day, declared that it " adhered to its original announcement." Day by day the controversy raged in the newspapers; but the news was too probable not to gain credence. The result was a conviction throughout the country that the Times had really obtained information of the Government's intentions. Meanwhile Lord Ashley, a staunch upholder of the corn laws, in a letter to his constituents of Dorsetshire, declared his opinion "that the destiny of the corn laws was fixed," and that it would be wise to consider "how best to break the force of an inevitable blow." Mr. Bickham and Captain Estcott, also strong defenders of the landlord's monopoly, published their conviction that the corn laws were no longer tenable; and on the 22nd of November Lord J. Russell, who was at Edinburgh, addressed a letter to the electors of the city, which was duly circulated throughout the kingdom, and which contained the following remarkable passages: -

"I confess that, on the general subject, my views have, in the course of twenty years, undergone a great alteration. I used to be of opinion that corn was an exception to the general rules of political economy; but observation and experience have convinced me that we ought to abstain from all interference with the supply of food. Neither a government nor a legislature can ever regulate the corn markets with the beneficial effects which the entire freedom of sale and purchase are sure of themselves to produce.

" I have for several years endeavoured to obtain a compromise on this subject. The result of resistance to qualified concession must be the same in the present instance as in those I have mentioned. It is no longer worth while to contend for a fixed duty. In 1841 the free-trade party would have agreed to a duty of 8s. a quarter on wheat, and after a lapse of years this duty might have been further reduced, and ultimately abolished. But the imposition of any duty, at present, without a provision for its extension within a short period, would but prolong a contest already sufficiently fruitful of animosity and discontent. The struggle to make bread scarce and dear, when it is clear that part, at least, of the additional price goes to increase rent, is a struggle deeply injurious to an aristocracy which (this quarrel once removed) is strong in property, strong in the construction of our legislature, strong in opinion, strong in ancient associations, and the memory of immortal services.

"Let us, then, unite to put an end to a system which has been proved to be the blight of commerce, the bane of agriculture, the source of bitter divisions among classes, the cause of penury, fever, mortality, and crime among the people."

The Cabinet met again on the 25th, when Sir Robert Peel informed his colleagues that, in the position of affairs, he could not abstain from advising the immediate suspension, by order in council, of the restrictive law of importation, or the early assembling of Parliament for the purpose of proposing a permanent change. Lord Aberdeen, Mr. Sidney Herbert, and Sir James Graham supported him. The Duke of Wellington gave a reluctant adhesion. It then became known that Lord Stanley had withdrawn from the Ministry, and it was believed that the Duke of Buccleuch intended to follow his example. The majority of the Cabinet had, after many deliberations, decided in favour of a permanent reduction in the sliding scale; but the position of the Minister was now too uncertain for him to attempt to carry through his measures. A resignation was the only step which could show the true strength of parties, and determine who would and who would not follow the Minister in that course which, if he was to return to power, he had now finally resolved to take. On the 6th of December he announced his determination to Her Majesty, and the public were excited with the news that the Peel Administration was at an end.

Lord John Russell was immediately summoned from Scotland, and on the 11th arrived at Osborne, where he received Her Majesty's commands to form a Government. On the ground that his party were in a minority in the House of Commons, Lord John Russell at first declined the honour presented to him; but on a paper being placed in his hands by the Queen, in which Sir R. Peel promised, in his private capacity, to aid and give every support to the new Ministry in settling the question of the corn laws, he undertook the task. There was no amicable feeling between the new and the retiring Minister. Lord John Russell's letter, published a few days before, had excited as much attention for its bitter sarcasm against Sir R. Peel as for the important change in the Whig policy which it announced.

Lord John Russell held communication with the late Government, but through Sir J. Graham. It was of importance to him to know more clearly the nature of that support which Sir R. Peel's memorandum seemed to promise; and he was, therefore, anxious to know what the latter would consider a satisfactory settlement. This proposal, however, to the late Minister to become responsible for the measures of his successors was declined. Sir J. Graham communicated to Lord John Russell the information as to the state of the country on which they acted; but Sir R. Peel, through his colleague, declined to state the details of the measures which had lately been contemplated. Lord John Russell then gave, in writing, an outline of the measures which the new Cabinet would propose, and invited the opinion of the late Minister. Sir R. Peel, however, still declined to take part in the plans of his opponents; and in a letter to the Queen, on the 17th of December, he stated the constitutional grounds on which he considered it improper that any one, not an adviser of the Crown, should take a part in the preparation of Ministerial measures. Lord John Russell thereupon immediately proceeded with his negotiations with his own party. It soon, however, appeared that the task he had proposed to himself was beyond his power.

Earl Grey, who had agreed to take the Secretaryship of the Colonies in the new Ministry, suddenly declared that he would not join any administration in which Lord Palmerston should hold the office of Secretary for Foreign Affairs. This unexpected accident was regarded by Lord John Russell as decisive. On the 20th of December he communicated the facts to the Queen, and begged to be relieved from the task he had undertaken.

On the day before Her Majesty had desired to see Sir Robert Peel, to bid him farewell; but before he had set out for Windsor he had learnt the circumstances of the failure of the Whig leader to form a cabinet; and as the result of his interview with the Queen, he returned to London to resume the reins of government. His position was greatly strengthened. Of his late cabinet, Lord Stanley alone insisted on retiring. The baffled Whigs and the discontented monopolist party threatened a formidable combination; but, as regarded the Ministry itself, the change of policy was effected with far less sacrifice than might have been expected. The change, however, in the Minister's position was enormous.

"When the right honourable baronet resigned," said Mr. Bright, addressing the Protectionist party some weeks later, " he was no longer your Minister. He came back to office as the Minister of the Sovereign, as the Minister of the people, and not again as the Minister of a class who made him such for their own selfish objects." The free-traders, however, relaxed no jot of their efforts: they even prepared themselves for a still more energetic movement than they had yet contemplated. A long course of Parliamentary battles was still before them; and they had too often seen success apparently at hand to be lulled into a false security.

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Sir James Graham
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