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The Redress of Wrongs. II


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Wrongs of the first magnitude yield quickly to the efforts of an earnestly reforming legislature. A progressive diminution in the bulk and pressure of the evils calling for remedy becomes visible in England after the middle of the century. It is pleasing evidence that the political regeneration of a people has well advanced, when they have leisure to engage in removing the less important disadvantages which still impede their welfare.

The sanitary condition of the English people, and the duration of human life, had largely improved. In the year 1710 the annual death-rate was one in thirty-six. In 1800 it was one in forty-eight. In 1810 it had improved to one in fifty-one. During the following twenty years it fell to one in fifty-four. The drainage of farm-lands had greatly diminished the power of those intermittent fevers which used to be so destructive. Vaccination had almost abolished small-pox, under which nine per cent, of the population had formerly perished. Improved houses and more generous diet had done their part in lessening the waste of life. But a new class of evils had arisen from the rapid and unregulated growth of cities. It was vaguely known that the sanitary condition of the city poor was deplorable, and was constantly becoming worse.

A commission was appointed to investigate the subject, and a copious and valuable report was published. The conclusions of this report made a profound impression. The supply of water in cities was exceedingly defective, and so habitually impregnated with impure matter as to become poisonous. Houses were crowded without regard to decency or safety, and ventilation was unknown. There was no drainage. In Liverpool and Manchester one-eighth of the population lived in cellars almost without light, and seldom dry. The dead were buried in crowded city graveyards, poisoning the air of the neighbourhood, and fatally tainting the wells from which the people had to drink. There were forty-three thousand pauper widows in England, and the commissioners were satisfied that in a great majority of instances the husbands of these poor women had been destroyed by causes which were easily removable. Filth and bad ventilation cost England more lives annually than she had lost by death in battle or by wounds during the bloodiest year of her history. It was possible to reduce by more than one-half the amount of sickness constantly existing in the country. The average length of life among the gentry and professional men of London was then forty-four years; in the labouring class it was twenty-two years. Of the threescore and ten years of life to which the working-man might reasonably aspire, two-thirds were sacrificed to the unhappy conditions under which his life was passed. The annual waste of adult life, from causes which ought to be removed, was estimated at from thirty to forty thousand.

The anti-corn law strife was raging then, and people had no thought to spare for the remedy of sanitary evils. But in course of time, when the agitations of the great contest were calmed, there were passed, almost without observation, several acts, by whose operation much disease has been averted and innumerable lives have been saved. The last resting-places of the dead were removed to a safe distance from the dwellings of the living cities were drained; copious supplies of pure water were introduced; houses unfit for the abode of man were thrown down, and a more worthy class of dwelling erected in their room; the prevalence of epidemics was gradually abated by the use of sanitary precautions; and a General Board of Health was Appointed, with large powers, to enforce such regulations as were fitted to promote the bodily welfare of the population. A Parliamentary election, a change of ministry, a remarkable murder, or a little war with some savage king, would have interested the British people more than those prosaic laws which only removed poisonous filth from their streets, or introduced pure air and water into their homes. But the influence of sanitary legislation traces its benign and enduring record in the higher physical condition of city populations, in our comparative freedom from epidemic disease, and in the increased duration of human life, as that is reported to us by the gradual fall in our death-rate (This rate, which in 1887 was 24.7 per 1000 persons, was in 18S6 only 20. Excepting Sweden and Denmark, England is the healthiest of European states. The death-rata of Italy is 28.7; of Austria, 29.4; of Hungary, 37.2; of Prussia, 25.4. France, approaches England in the sanitary scale; her death-rate is 22.7 per 1000.). A large gain has been effected, but the waste of human life is still discreditably great. Of children born in cities nearly one-half die under five years of age. So imperfectly, even in Britain, have we yet been able to turn to account those possibilities of life with which nature has endowed us, that this lamentable proportion of our number fail to gain any footing in the world of living men, and perish when they have only begun to live.

The English dissenters had become powerful by their numbers, intelligence, and high character, but their influence had not yet sufficed to relieve them from ancient disabilities of an irritating and insulting description. They were compelled to contribute to the support of the Established Church, which they regarded as an unscriptural institution. Their own ministers were not empowered to perform the marriage ceremony, and dissenting lovers were constrained to accept union from the clergymen of a church which they abhorred. It happened occasionally that a bridegroom of spirit protested, even at the altar, against the tyranny to which he was submitting, and that the clergyman indemnified himself by reading with special emphasis portions of the service which he knew would be specially offensive. Dissenters might not be buried in the parish graveyard according to forms which they themselves approved; the service of the Church of England must be read over them ere they were suffered to be laid in ground which was the common inheritance of all the parishioners. Their sons were absolutely excluded from Oxford. In more liberal Cambridge they were permitted to study, but denied the privilege of graduation (The statutes by which the nonconformist youth of the nineteenth century were excluded from the universities were framed at the bidding of James I. in 161(3, and adopted reluctantly. An immortality of mischief seemed to have been conferred on that foolish king. Two centuries and a half after he was in his grave he had not yet ceased from troubling. His senseless and intolerant edicts still provoked strife among the English people). The Jews, in addition to the grievances which they shared with other nonconformists, laboured under the disability peculiar to themselves, that they could not have a seat in the House of Commons. They were, indeed, indulged by being allowed to take an oath on the Old Testament, but were, somewhat inconsistently, required to add the words, "on the true faith of a Christian," and this was necessarily a sentence of exclusion.

Ecclesiastical grievances are exceptionally difficult of redress. Protection, with all the enormous pecuniary interests which it involved, was much more easily uprooted than the wrongs of the dissenters. The tithe - a tax levied for support of the clergymen - was the first to fall. The church rate - a tax imposed for the maintenance of ecclesiastical buildings - was wrangled over for many years. Once in the House of Commons the votes for and against the abolition of the tax were equal, and the Speaker had to decide. Next year, in a very full House, the numbers differed by only a single vote. It was not till 1868 that the compulsory levy of church rates was abolished.

Many attempts were made to compromise the claims of the dissenters in regard to the celebration of their marriages. But no proposal was so fortunate as to satisfy at once the churchmen, resolute to preserve their monopoly, and the dissenters, resolute to destroy it. At length, when the present system of registration was being established, a re-adjustment of old arrangements became indispensable. With little opposition the long-withheld freedom was now conceded, and the marriages of dissenters were suffered to be performed by dissenting clergymen. In regard to their funerals the nonconformists have been less fortunate. The House of Commons still spends a portion of each session in heated debate over this question. It has not yet (This wrong was redressed by the Burial Laws Amendment Act, 1880.) been deemed safe to allow to dissenters the privilege of interment according to their own forms in the graveyard of the parish. Many churchmen indicate a belief that dissenters would use objectionable rites which would be a scandal to the sober-minded. On this ground, and others no wiser, the privilege is still refused.

The Commons opened their ranks willingly to admit the Jews, and year by year passed a bill bidding them welcome. But the orthodox Peers maintained stubbornly the exclusion of the unbelievers. It was not till the year 1858 that this difficulty was overcome, and Baron Lionel de Rothschild at length took his seat in the House (The Peers would not run the risk of having a Jew in the Upper House, but they consented that each House should have the power of modifying, according to its own pleasure, the oath required from a new member. In 1885, Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, son of Baron Lionel, was admitted to the House of Lords.).

One of the most tenacious of all the wrongs endured by dissenters was the exclusion of their sons from the universities. Redress of this grievance was claimed from the first reformed Parliament. It was not obtained till forty years had passed. Although the exclusion of any class from the great national schools was conspicuously unjust, it was about the very latest of the great harvest of wrongs which fell to the sickle of a reforming legislature.

The Whigs who carried the Reform Bill of 1832 undoubtedly considered that they had effected a settlement which there would be no occasion to disturb for many years. Lord John. Russell has been unjustly charged with the rash assertion that this adjustment was final - not to be modified in any coming time. What he did assert was that "in so far as ministers are concerned this is a final measure." His government would propose no further change; he himself probably did not expect to live into a time when further change would be asked for. But within a period which in the multitude of his years could not seem very considerable, Lord John found himself promoting to the utmost of his power an expansion of electoral privilege large enough to have filled with dismay the sober-minded Whigs who fought with him in the old Reform controversy.

The Reform Bill was a compromise satisfactory to the middle class, on whom it bestowed a reasonable measure of political authority. It was not satisfactory to the working-classes, whom it left wholly unrepresented. Even in the first reformed Parliament there was a party who claimed the suffrage as the right of every householder, who desired the protection of the ballot in voting, and a shortening of the duration of Parliaments. Among the most intelligent working-men, who now took a deep and salutary interest in politics, these views had a large support. The unreasoning violence, however, with which they were urged, as embodied in what was termed the People's Charter, alarmed the timid, and brought general discredit upon views most of which were ultimately adopted when the antipathies aroused by injudicious advocacy had passed away.

Many unsuccessful motions expressed the still unsatisfied craving for reform, and continued to fan the growing flame. At length the Whigs once more took up the question, and Lord John Russell introduced a bill which gained the disapproval of all shades of political belief. Two years later he tabled a proposal of a greatly more acceptable character. But the country was then yielding to its long dormant passion for war, and was visibly drifting into a lamentable contest with Russia. No thought could be given to the tame concerns of mere domestic reform.

The agitations of the Crimean "War and the Indian Mutiny required to subside before the friends of reform could again gain a hearing. It fell this time to the Conservatives to propose an extension of those popular rights the conceding of which they had opposed so vehemently a quarter of a century before. Mr. Disraeli proposed a bill which contained so few grains of reform that the House rejected it contemptuously, and the government replied by a dissolution of Parliament. The first division in the newly-elected House inflicted upon ministers a defeat which involved their resignation. They were succeeded by an administration of which Lord Palmerston, Lord John Russell, and Mr. Gladstone were the most influential members.

Again Lord John Russell introduced a Reform Bill. This time the popular gain would have been large, for the county franchise was to be based on a 10 rental, while the burgh qualification was reduced to 6. But Lord Palmerston was hostile; the country seemed almost unconcerned; and the members of the House of Commons, from whose memory the trials and expenses of a recent election had scarcely begun to fade, looked coldly upon a measure which invited the immediate return of those evils. Lord John, in sadness of heart, withdrew his bill. The happiness was not to be his of further enlarging the electoral privileges of his countrymen.

For some years, so long as Lord Palmerston lived, the question was not stirred otherwise than by the occasional motion of some independent member, always sure to be defeated by a large majority. It was, however, the growing desire of the country that the representation should undergo reform, although, as there were no intolerable grievances to endure, there was no feeling of impatience in the public mind. At length the old Parliament reached the verge of Parliamentary existence, and was dissolved. Soon after, in extreme old age, Lord Palmerston passed away. At the elections reform claimed rank as the foremost question, and Mr. Gladstone was its recognized champion.

A new bill was promptly introduced, lowering the franchise to 14 in the counties and 7 in the burghs. This very restricted measure of reform did not awaken the enthusiasm of the country. It had again the disadvantage of being proposed to a newly-elected Parliament, and it encountered the hostility of Mr. Disraeli and his followers - the hereditary enemies of reform - and of Mr. Lowe, with a band of discontented Liberals. Mr. Gladstone was defeated, and his ministry resigned.

A Tory ministry, headed by Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli, took its place, and put its hand at once to the work in which the Liberals had failed, - the extension of the electoral franchise. Mr. Disraeli had considered the 14 county franchise and the 7 borough franchise revolutionary. He himself now offered household suffrage in the boroughs (Limited to some extent by the provision that the householders must have paid poor-rates before being registered, and must have occupied for twelve months the premises on which they qualified.) and a 12 franchise in the counties.

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