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The Redress of Wrongs I


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The Reform Bill of 1832 is undoubtedly, for the British people, the greatest political fact of the nineteenth century. It has been called by its enemies a revolution; and it was so. Two methods of government have been practised among men. The oldest and the most widely prevalent has been government by an individual or a class, very naturally with a supreme regard to the interests of that individual or that class. The other, which is of later origin, and until recently was confined for the most part to the Anglo-Saxon family, is government by the people themselves, and for their own interests. The Reform Bill marks for Great Britain the vast transition from the old method to the new. Inasmuch as self-government educates and ennobles, inasmuch as the government of another humiliates and debases, the revolution which raised the British to the rank of a self-governing people may well be ranked as one of the most beneficent in their history.

And what have been its fruits? A period longer than the lifetime of a generation has passed since the great transition was accomplished. At that serene distance we should be able to estimate with calmness and impartiality the results which the change has yielded to us. A very slight examination reveals the fact that the legislation which followed the Reform Bill differs in spirit and intention from that which went before as widely as it is possible for one thing to differ from another. The ruling idea of legislation before 1832 was Protection, - special privilege bestowed upon some special class or interest at the expense of other classes or interests. Every one was protected. The landlord and farmer were protected by laws which shut out foreign grain and foreign cattle, and levied a heavy-duty on foreign wool and timber. The shipowner was protected by a law which forbade the entrance of goods unless they were conveyed in British ships, or imposed heavy additional duties on those which foreign ships were allowed to bring. The manufacturer was protected by heavy duties on silks, woollens, and linens, on paper, on glass, on iron, - indeed on nearly every manufactured article which foreigners could send. Liberal grants from the public funds encouraged him to export his products to foreign markets. For his benefit the export of English wool was prevented. He was further protected by a law which forbade the emigration of artisans; by another law which forbade the exportation of machinery; and by yet another law which forbade the combination of workmen, lest the price of labour should be advanced. Every one was raised up on some special platform of artificial privilege and superiority - every one but the working-man, who, having no voice in Parliament, was regarded as the common prey of those who had.

The ruling idea of legislation since 1832 has been that legislation has no favourites; that all men are equal in the eye of the law; that all men are entitled to protection of life and property, and that no man is entitled to more. Before 1832, legislation occupied itself with the creation of special advantages for the benefit of favoured classes at the expense of those who were less favoured; after 1832, legislation occupied itself with the overthrow of all those iniquitous preferences. I propose now to give some account of the undoing of those numerous wrongs which during many generations had pressed heavily upon the welfare of the British people. During the next forty years this beneficent process forms by much the larger portion of their political history.

The influences of the reforming spirit were growing in power during all the years which followed the close of the war. They were strong enough to gain some important successes even before that crowning triumph which made all others easy.

First in the long roll of wicked or foolish laws now to be abolished, there fell the old laws which had been enacted five hundred years ago, for the purpose of keeping the working-classes in a position of convenient subordination to their employers. The working-classes would bear the injustice no longer, and it was plain to all men that relief must be given. The exportation of machinery was now permitted. Artisans were no longer bound like serfs to British soil, but were free to carry their labour elsewhere if they desired. Above all, combinations of workmen to obtain better wages, or for any other reasonable purpose, were no longer forbidden. Hitherto workmen combined in secret, now they did so openly; and the troubled but in the end beneficent era of trades-unions began.

In the days of Charles II., when the people lay under continual fear that the Roman Catholics would regain their lost ascendency, an act was passed which provided that no man could hold a seat in Parliament, or any office under the crown, until he had repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation, and partaken of the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of En-land. This Test Act, aimed at the Catholics, fell with equal wei-ht on Protestant dissenters; but they, sharing the common dread, were contented to suffer bereavement of their own privileges if only they might disable the common foe. In 1790 Charles Fox had vainly sought the repeal of this law. It was the prevailing feeling of that time, that men who did not conform to the church which the nation had established, ought to be contented with bare toleration. Lord John Russell now moved the repeal of the Test Act. Mr. Peel and Mr. Huskisson opposed the change, but without success. In the House of Lords the measure had an easy victory. One of the bishops, however, contrived to have the words "on the true faith of a Christian" attached to the declaration which was required of a member of Parliament, These words continued the exclusion of the Jews from the House of Commons, and the Jews, few in number although wealthy, had to wait thirty years before the injustice done to them was repaired.

During the eighteenth century the Irish Parliament, composed of Protestants of an exceedingly bitter type, had heaped upon the unhappy Catholics of Ireland an accumulation of the most wicked laws which have ever been expressed in the English tongue. A Catholic could not sit in Parliament, could not hold any office under the crown, could not vote at an election, could not be a solicitor, or a physician, or a sheriff, or a gamekeeper. If his son became a Protestant, he was withdrawn from paternal custody and intrusted to Protestant relatives, with a suitable provision by the father for his maintenance. A Catholic was not permitted to own a horse of greater value than five pounds. If he used a more reputable animal, he was bound to sell it for that sum to any Protestant who was disposed to buy. If a younger brother turned Protestant, he supplanted the elder in his birthright. A Catholic could not inherit from an intestate relative, however near. A Protestant solicitor who married a Catholic was disqualified from following his profession.. Marriages of Protestants and Catholics, if performed by a priest, were annulled, and the priest was liable to be hanged. Rewards, varying according to the rank of the victim, were offered for the discovery of Catholic clergymen. In the early part of the century, a Catholic who was so daring as to enter the gallery of the House of Commons was liable to arrest (William III. was applied to by the English woollen manufacturers to prevent that branch of industry from being prosecuted in Ireland. He promised to discourage it to the utmost, and he was as good as his word).

The greater part of this profligate legislation had been cancelled during the century which gave it birth. But when the union with England was accomplished in 1801, there still survived laws which forbade the Catholic to be a member of the House of Commons, to hold any important crown office or a commission in the army, to be guardian to a Protestant, to hold any civic office without the written consent of the Lord Lieutenant, to be a gamekeeper, or to have arms in his possession for sale or otherwise, unless he should first renounce the doctrine of transubstantiation and the worship of the Virgin Mary, and receive the sacrament from the Church of England.

Ireland lay for many years utterly prostrate under this cruel Orange domination, unable to express her discontent more articulately than by frequent assassinations or occasional insurrection. Many of the Catholic gentry and traders quitted the country in disgust. At one time five-sixths of the English infantry were employed in maintaining the uncertain tranquillity of this unhappy and vilely-governed country.

"William Pitt had given to the Catholics a pledge that he would relieve them from their disabilities. But the old king was hopelessly obstinate in his anti-Popish feeling. He thought they were urging him to violate his coronation oath, and he intimated that he would regard every man who did so as his personal enemy. Long afterwards his son, the Duke of York, stated in the House of Lords that the illness which clouded the last years of the king's life was the result of his mental struggles over this question. It is sad to think of the poor old man thus agonized, but infinitely sadder that injustice done to six million Catholics should have been prolonged for twenty years by his incurable dulness and prejudice.

Despite the king, the claims of the Catholics came every year before Parliament with steadily growing support. In Ireland the agitation was governed by Daniel O'Connell. No man was ever more perfectly fitted for the work he undertook. O'Connell's eloquence was irresistible. He roused to white heat the passions of his ignorant countrymen; but, even in the moment of fiercest excitement, his control over the forces which he evoked was absolute. He held Ireland constantly on the verge of rebellion, but lie never permitted the law to be broken. With the whole body of Catholic Irishmen obedient to his will, O'Connell became a power which no government could continue to resist.

The Duke of Wellington and Mr. Peel were in full sympathy with the king in his resistance to the claims of the Catholics. But the time came when they were overborne by the sheer force of unwearied agitation. Peel was the first to recognize defeat. He was able to satisfy the duke that concession was inevitable; and the duke executed the still more difficult task of persuading the king that the welfare of the empire commanded surrender. A bill to remove Catholic disabilities was introduced, and pressed with all the authority of a strong government. The bigotry of the kingdom rose in violent resistance to the proposal that civil penalty should no longer be attached to erring religious belief. But the necessity was too urgent. The bill quickly became law, and its earliest fruit was the return of O'Connell himself to the House of Commons.

The reformed Parliament entered promptly and with vigour upon the undoing of wrongs which the ignorarce and selfishness of ages had heaped upon the suffering land. Its very first session is rich with the story of abolished evils (There were still, however, subjects regarding which this meritorious Parliament stood gravely in need of education. In 1833 Mr. Hume's annual motion for the abolition of flogging in the army was negatived by a small majority. A motion pointing towards the abolition of impressment for the navy was also refused).

For a quarter of a century no slave had been imported into our West Indian possessions, but there was in the various islands a slave population numbering six hundred thousand. By the efforts of Clarkson and others, a public sentiment was created which compelled the abolition of the trade in slaves. Later on, Wilberforce and Buxton aroused the national conscience on the subject of slavery. Emancipation was one of the prominent questions of the election, and no candidate dared avow to the people whose votes he sought that he was hostile or even indifferent to the removal of the national disgrace. The harvest of many years of patient toil was now to be reaped. The abolition of slavery was decreed, with the almost unanimous concurrence of all but the slave-owners. That even they should have no reason to complain of the forcible relinquishment of their unjustly held possessions, Parliament voted them the enormous compensation of twenty million sterling. Economy had become almost a passion of late years; but, to the honour of the people be it told, the great price with which the freedom of the slaves was purchased was paid without a murmur.

The evils resulting from the unduly prolonged labour of children in factories had attracted the attention which its importance demanded, and had been carefully examined by a Committee of the House of Commons. The subject of legislative interference between master and servant was new, and the propriety of such interference was doubted by many. The manufacturers were for the most part strenuous in their opposition (The first Sir Robert Peel, father of the statesman, was a noble exception. He himself had then a thousand children in his employment, and he claimed to know, from his own experience and observation, the urgency of legislative interference. But the unreformed House of Commons was deaf to his entreaties). But the evil was too gigantic; the suffering which it caused was too cruel. It was settled then - and the settlement was ere long cordially acquiesced in even by those who had opposed it - that, while grown men could fight their own battle with their employers, and were to receive no help in doing so, the interests of women and children called for protection at the hands of the legislature. An act was passed which prohibited the employment of children under nine; which limited to forty-eight hours weekly the working time of children under thirteen, and to sixty-nine hours weekly that of young persons under eighteen. Ten years later a further limitation was imposed. Females and those males who were under eighteen might be employed for eleven hours daily during the three years which followed the passing of the act. Thereafter came a reduction to ten hours. It was doubted by many whether our manufacturers, thus fettered, could endure the competition of foreigners, whose hours of labour were not restricted by law. "Manchester," said Daniel O'Connell, "will become a tomb." But the vast enlargement of commerce which followed the adoption of a free trade policy disappointed these fears; and the Factory Act proved an unmingled good.

The uneducated condition of the English people had been ascertained many years ago. The rapid increase of population constantly enhanced the magnitude of the evil. There existed an honest desire to promote education by government support for years before a way could be found. The jealousies which divided churchmen and dissenters interposed difficulties which no government had been able to surmount. But, although government gave no help, private effort, combined with the growing thirst of the people for education, already mitigated the evil. In 1818 there was only one person in seventeen of the population attending school. In 1833 the proportion was one in eleven. Years after, in 1851, when government help had long been given (In 1850 the government grant was 180,000. Ten years later it had risen to three-quarters of a million. In 1870 it was close upon one million), the attendance improved to one in eight. During all these years the Christian churches had been busily engaged in the establishment of Sunday schools. The rapid growth of that beneficent movement is evidenced by the increased attendance from one in twenty-four in 1818 to one in nine in 1833, and one in eight in 1851.

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