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The Reform Bill

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During many years the chosen occupation of the British people had been to rescue Europe from the despotism which Napoleon sought to establish. It was an enterprise which taxed their resources and pressed heavily upon their welfare. But they were able to persuade- themselves that it was an enterprise to which honour and safety alike impelled them. Napoleon was the great enemy of Europe, and his overthrow must be effected before good in any solid or enduring form could be enjoyed by the European people. In this belief a generation of Englishmen had been educated. The war engrossed their thoughts to the exclusion, for the time, of domestic interests. To interfere with the pursuit of the common foe, by any complaint of individual wrong or assertion of individual right, was an impropriety which no well-conditioned citizen was expected to commit. The necessity of reform in our system of representation had been recognized long ago. Lord Chatham advocated reform fifty years before the battle of Waterloo. It formed the subject of public discussion among the people of Scotland about the same time. William Pitt followed in the footsteps of his father, and during the ten years which preceded the French revolution introduced several measures of a reforming character (Pitt does not, however, take rank as an advanced reformer. He proposed mainly, a redistribution of seats. Members were to be taken from decayed constituencies, and bestowed on the growing communities, pecuniary compensation being given to the disfranchised. Besides this, ninety-nine thousand householders were to receive the franchise).

In 1776 John Wilkes proposed a measure which embraced all the leading changes afterwards enacted by the Reform Bill. In 1791 Sir James Mackintosh, urging the claim of the people to a share in their own government, went so far as to say that while the grievances of England did not yet justify a change by violence, they were in rapid progress to that state in which they would both justify and produce it. A very general concurrence of opinion warranted the hope that some beneficial change in the representative system could not long be delayed.

The need, in truth, was very urgent. The people of England had little influence and no authority over their government. It was said that they lived under a representative system, but the system had become so corrupt there was scarcely a shred of honest representation left in it. Two-thirds of the House of Commons were appointed by peers, or other influential persons. Every great nobleman had a number of seats at his unquestioned disposal. The Duke of Norfolk owned eleven members; Lord Lonsdale owned nine; the Duke of Rutland owned six. Seventy members were returned by thirty-five places where there were scarcely any voters at all. Old Sarum had two members, but not one solitary inhabitant; Gatton enjoyed the services of two members, while her electors were seven in number. The right to appoint these two members had been valued at 100,000 pounds. The revenue officers, who cast their votes as the government directed them, controlled seventy elections. Three hundred members, it was estimated, were returned by one hundred and sixty persons. All this time Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester were unrepresented. Seats were openly offered for sale down to the very eve of the Reform Bill. Hastings had been so often sold for 6000 pounds that her market price was perfectly established. Sudbury publicly advertised herself for sale. Generally the purchaser was expected to belong to the same political party with the majority of his constituents; but this was not indispensable. A man was once purchasing the representation of a place called Petersfield, and the price, which was being adjusted in pounds, was raised to guineas because he was on the wrong side of politics. The members who bought their seats sold their votes, and thus made their outlay reproductive. At one period George III. supplied money, almost openly, to buy seats and bribe members. Till 1784 the polling might continue for six weeks. In that year its duration was reduced to fifteen days. Throughout that awful period violence and drunkenness prevailed without restraint. The unhappy constituency which was the victim of a contested election could scarcely have suffered more if it had been subjected to bombardment.

The political condition of Scotland was yet more lamentable. The people were utterly excluded from any part in the representation. The election was transacted in a room, or it might be in a church, and awakened no interest whatever in the public mind. The inhabitants were often apprised by the ringing of the city bells that an election had taken place. The county voters in 1830 did not number over two thousand. The county of Bute had at one time only a single voter who resided in the county. At an election this momentous person took the chair, proposed and seconded his own return, recorded his vote in his own favour, and solemnly announced that he was unanimously elected. The government of the day, or the landed gentlemen, regulated every election with absolute and unquestioned authority.

In the burghs of Scotland the town councils appointed delegates, by whom the members were chosen. These bodies nominated their successors, so that the people did not enjoy even an apparent connection with the appointment of members. Edinburgh alone had a member for herself; the other burghs being united for the purposes of the election into groups of four or five Even in Edinburgh, with a population exceeding 100,000, thirty-three persons, virtually self-elected, held in their hands the appointment of the representative. They ordinarily disr charged their trust at the bidding of government; and their sons and brothers, it was remarked, were the happy recipients of an unusual proportion of government patronage. The burgh constituencies of Scotland did not contain quite fifteen hundred electors.

The occurrence of the French revolution was a powerful reinforcement to those who sought to remedy the intolerable abuses of our political system. The easy vindication of their liberties by a people so oppressed as the French inspired the minds of reformers in England with a sure hope of success. The general feeling approved warmly of what the French had done. The moderate English press constantly expressed its approbation. The frequent allusions on the stage to the triumph of liberty in France never failed to call forth the hearty applause of the audience. Pitt himself looked on with approval, and wished success to the patriots of France. Charles Fox hailed the movement as the dawn of European regeneration. To Sheridan it appeared that the French were "virtuously engaged in obtaining the rights of man." The rejoicing Liberals of England were persuaded that the battle of human liberty had been victoriously fought in Paris.

But their joy was not enduring. There came, in swift and dark succession, the unimagined atrocities of these new allies of freedom; the wanton invasion by the French republic of the rights of other nations; and the triumphant despotism of Napoleon. The sentiment of England experienced a sudden revulsion. France combined against herself the abhorrence of all classes of politicians - from those on the one extreme who feared the undue power of the populace to those on the other whose apprehensions pointed wholly to the excessive authority of the government. A passionate hatred to change took possession of English minds. "This is no time," said Pitt, "to make experiments." The cause of reform, tainted by an alliance with the national foe, was abandoned by most of its former friends. England, resigning herself to the evils of her political lot, gave her undivided strength to the overthrow of the Emperor Napoleon.

With peace there came relief from that bloody and profitless labour which for nearly a quarter of a century had engrossed the mind and barred the progress of the British people. With peace came instantly the long-banished thought of their own internal concerns. The shout of triumph with which the rejoicing people hailed their splendid but dear-bought victory had scarcely passed into silence when they seemed to awaken to a bitter sense of wrong and pain. The change from war to peace brought the usual commercial dislocations. The war expenditure suddenly ceased. The country was exhausted by the fathomless extravagance and waste of prolonged war; and when the feverish excitement of the contest was over the exhaustion made itself felt at once. An unfavourable season added untold bitterness to the inevitable trial. The harvest of 1816 was so poor that wheat rose to one hundred and six shillings per quarter. Employment was scarce, and wages in many occupations were low. Depression pervaded nearly all industries. Factories were closed, iron-furnaces were blown out, coal-pits were shut up. Idle and hungry men wandered over the country, vainly seeking for employment. Hunger persuades men to evil, and the sufferers of those days were no wiser than other sufferers have been. Incendiary fires lighted up the evening sky. Bands of lawless persons attacked factories and destroyed the machinery, which, as they supposed, lessened the demand for human labour. In cities riots of huge dimensions were of constant occurrence. Once the mob in Glasgow were strong enough and fierce enough to maintain a fight of two days with the soldiers.

It was in those days of misery and violence that the demand for reform in our system of Parliamentary representation first became formidable. Prominent among those who created and directed public opinion on this subject was William Cobbett. His writings were read beside every cottage hearth in England, and exercised an authority immediate and powerful. Cobbett never ceased to urge that misgovernment was the source of all the misery which the people endured, and that Parliamentary reform was its natural and its only cure. His words sank deep into the public heart. Clubs to promote reform sprang up all over the country, and before the end of 1816 the demand even for universal suffrage was loud and urgent.

The great work of the next sixteen years was this agitation for reform of the representative system. Had governments of greater wisdom or of inferior strength been in office, much evil would have been spared. But the right of the people to interfere in politics had been for many years disused (At a trial for libel in 1811 the judge (Baron Wood) explicitly denied the existence of such a right. "The right to discuss the acts of our legislature," he said, "would be a large permission indeed."), and a government, powerful by right of triumph over the greatest of all military despotisms, was not prepared to suffer its revival. The contest was a singularly bitter one. The government had no foundation in national choice; the relations between rulers and people were not friendly, but hostile. The people looked upon the government as a power high above them, of opposing interests, oppressive, contemptuous, cruel. The government believed that the new impulse which had seized the masses threatened danger to the institutions of the country; that every popular leader was a traitor j that every demand for political privileges was seditious. They spurned the thought of concession, and prepared to carry out inflexibly to its bitter end the policy of forcible suppression.

In this unhappy spirit the greatest of our domestic battles was fought. Many of the years across which the contest stretched were years of acute national suffering, for it was long before the country recovered from the exhaustion of the war. The resumption of specie payments in 1819 intensified the general distress. Money became very scarce; exports fell away; prices of nearly all commodities sank about one-half. Widespread ruin passed over the mercantile class; and England, it was said, "exhibited all the appearances of a dying nation."

The feeling deepened rapidly among a' suffering people that they were ruined by misgovernment; that their welfare was deliberately sacrificed to promote the interests of the privileged classes; that there was no safety for them but in gaining for themselves a share in the government. Among the working population of the cities, especially, reform became now the absorbing interest. They were unused to agitate (So utterly were the people excluded from any part in politics, that for twenty years there had not been in Edinburgh any public meeting of a political character), and at the outset they were not happy in their leaders. They pledged themselves to abstain from the purchase of articles which contributed to the revenue. An ominous passion for military drill sprang up among the artisans. The unrepresented towns began to appoint representatives, who should claim a place in that House from which they were wrongfully excluded. Huge meetings, expressing themselves by monster petitions, were continually held; and unhappily these constitutional methods of influencing the legislature were emphasized by occasional riots.

The government was resolute to extinguish, by military force, the discontent of the people. The Manchester reformers held a meeting of sixty thousand persons, with no design but to petition for Parliamentary reform. A strong military force was provided by the authorities - infantry, cavalry, and artillery. The proceedings had scarcely begun when a large body of mounted yeomanry dashed at a rapid trot among the defenceless multitude. Many persons - men, women, and little children - were carried from the field killed or injured. The thanks of the prince-regent were promptly offered to the magistrates who had directed this wicked and cowardly slaughter The chairman and others who promoted the meeting were put on their trial for sedition, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. In further prosecution of the mode of treatment which was thus applied, Parliament was now induced to pass the six acts proposed by the Tory government. Henceforth Englishmen were not to assemble in larger numbers than fifty, unless a magistrate convened them; and the exciting privilege of carrying a flag on such occasions was expressly denied them. The magistrates had large powers given to search houses suspected to contain weapons. Military exercises were forbidden. Newspapers were fettered with certain arrangements as to stamps, which, it was held, would restrain their unwarrantable boldness in discussing the measures of government. The liberties of Englishmen were now at the discretion of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth.

The Whig chiefs represented in Parliament the movement which was rapidly taking possession of the country. Their management of the cause was at the outset timid even to weakness. They aimed to mediate between the extreme Liberals and the Tories - between that party which was making "unlimited demands" and that other party which replied with "a total and peremptory denial." How unevenly at this time they held the balance may be judged from Lord John Russell's proposal of 1819. It was nothing greater than that the franchise of any constituency convicted of bribery should be handed over to some populous town. Even this morsel of reform was denied. The Whigs were obliged to accept the disfranchisement of one very rotten burgh and the transfer of its franchise.

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