William IV : English Reforms – Beacon Lights of History, Volume X : European Leaders by John Lord
William IV : English Reforms
Sir Robert Peel : Political Economy
Cavour : United Italy
Czar Nicholas : The Crimean War
Louis Napoleon : The Second Empire
Prince Bismarck : The German Empire
William Ewart Gladstone : The Enfranchisement of the People
Beacon Lights of History, Volume X : European Leaders
Social evils in England on the accession of William IV.
Premiership of Lord Grey.
Aristocratic character of the reformers.
Lord John Russell.
The Reform Bill.
Its final passage.
Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister.
Troubles in Ireland.
Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister.
His short administration.
Succeeded by Lord Melbourne.
Abolition of West India slavery.
Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Reform of municipal corporations.
Death of William IV.
Second ministry of Sir Robert Peel.
The Duke of Wellington.
Agitations for repeal of the Corn Laws.
William IV : English Reforms
On the death of George IV. in 1830, a new political era dawned on England. His brother, William IV., who succeeded him, was not his equal in natural ability, but was more respectable in his character and more liberal in his views. With William IV. began the undisputed ascendency of the House of Commons in national affairs. Before his day, no prime minister could govern against the will of the sovereign. After George IV., as in France under Louis Philippe, “the king reigned, but did not govern.” The chief of the ascendent political party was the real ruler.
When William IV. ascended the throne the Tories were still in power, and were hostile to reform. But the agitations and discontents of the latter days of George IV. had made the ministry unpopular. Great political reformers had arisen, like Lords Grey, Althorp, and Russell, and great orators like Henry Brougham and Macaulay, who demanded a change in the national policy. The social evils which stared everybody in the face were a national disgrace; they made the boasted liberty of the English a mockery. There was an unparalleled distress among the laboring classes, especially in the mining and manufacturing districts. The price of labor had diminished, while the price of bread had increased. So wretched was the condition of the poor that there were constant riots and insurrections, especially in large towns. In war times unskilled laborers earned from twelve to fifteen shillings a week, and mechanics twenty-five shillings; but in the stagnation of business which followed peace, wages suffered a great reduction, and thousands could find no work at all. The disbanding of the immense armies that had been necessary to combat Napoleon threw out of employ perhaps half a million of men, who became vagabonds, beggars, and paupers. The agricultural classes did not suffer as much as operatives in mills, since they got a high price for their grain; but the more remunerative agriculture became to landlords, the more miserable were those laborers who paid all they could earn to save themselves from absolute starvation. No foreign grain could be imported until wheat had arisen to eighty shillings a “quarter,” –which unjust law tended to the enrichment of land-owners, and to a corresponding poverty among the laboring classes. In addition to the high price which the people paid for bread, they were taxed heavily upon everything imported, upon everything consumed, upon the necessities and conveniences of life as well as its luxuries,–on tea, on coffee, on sugar, on paper, on glass, on horses, on carriages, on medicines,–since money had to be raised to pay the interest on the national debt and to provide for the support of the government, including pensions, sinecures, and general extravagance.
In the poverty which enormous taxes and low wages together produced, there were not only degradation and squalid misery in England at this time, but violence and crime. And there was also great injustice in the laws which punished crime. There were two hundred and twenty-three offences punishable with death. If a starving peasant killed a hare, he was summarily hanged. Catholics were persecuted for their opinions; Jews were disqualified from holding office. Only men of comfortable means were allowed to vote. The universities were closed against Dissenters. No man stood any chance of political preferment unless he was rich or was allied with the aristocracy, who controlled the House of Commons. The nobles and squires not merely owned most of the landed property of the realm, but by their “rotten boroughs” could send whom they pleased to Parliament. In consequence the House of Commons did not represent the nation, but only the privileged classes. It was as aristocratic as the House of Lords.
In the period of repose which succeeded the excitements of war the people began to see their own political insignificance, and to agitate for reforms. A few noble-minded and able statesmen of the more liberal party, if any political party could be called liberal, lifted up their voices in Parliament for a redress of scandalous evils; but the eloquence which distinguished them was a mere protest. They were in a hopeless minority; nothing could be done to remove or ameliorate public evils so long as the majority of the House of Commons were opposed to reform. It is obvious that the only thing the reformers could do, whether in or out of Parliament, was to agitate, to discuss, to hold public meetings, to write political tracts, to change public opinion, to bring such a pressure to bear on political aspirants as to insure an election of members to the House of Commons who were favorable to reform. For seven years this agitation had been going on during the later years of the reign of George IV. It was seen and felt by everybody that glaring public evils could not be removed until there should be a reform in Parliament itself,–which meant an extension of the electoral suffrage, by which more liberal and popular members might be elected.
On the accession of the new king, there was of course a new election of members to the House of Commons. In consequence of the agitations of reformers, public opinion had been changed, and a set of men were returned to Parliament pledged to reform. The old Tory chieftains no longer controlled the House of Commons, but Whig leaders like Brougham, Macaulay, Althorp, and Lord John Russell,–men elected on the issue of reform, and identified with the agitations in its favor.
The old Tory ministers who had ruled the country for fifty years went out of office, and the Whigs came into power under the premiership of Lord Grey. Although he was pledged to parliamentary reform, his cabinet was composed entirely of noblemen, with only one exception. There was no greater aristocrat in all England than this leader of reform,–a cold, reticent, proud man. Lord Russell was also an aristocrat, being a brother of the Duke of Bedford; so was Althorp, the son and heir of Earl Spencer. The only man in the new cabinet of fearless liberality of views, the idol of the people, a man of real genius and power, was Brougham; but after he was made Lord Chancellor, the presiding officer of the Chamber of Peers, he could no longer be relied upon as the mouthpiece of the people, as he had been for years in the House of Commons. It would almost seem that the new ministry thought more and cared more for the dominion of the Whigs than they did for a redress of the evils under which the nation groaned. But the Whigs were pledged to parliamentary reform, and therefore were returned to Parliament. More at least was expected of them by the middle classes, who formed the electoral body, than of the Tories, who were hostile to all reforms,–men like Wellington and Eldon, both political bigots, great as were their talents and services. In politics the Tories resembled the extreme Right in the French Chamber of Deputies,–the ultra-conservatives, who sustained the throne of Charles X. The Whigs bore more resemblance to the Centre of the Chamber of Deputies, led by such men as Guizot, Broglie, and Thiers, favorable to a constitutional monarchy, but by no means radicals and democrats like Louis Blanc, Ledru Rollin, and Lamartine. The Whigs, at the best, were as yet inclined only to such measures as would appease popular tumults, create an intelligent support to the throne, and favor necessary reform. It was, with them, a choice between revolution and a fairer representation of the nation in Parliament. It may be reasonably doubted whether there were a dozen men in the House of Commons that assembled at the beginning of the reign of William IV. who were democrats, or even men of popular sympathies. What the majority conceded was from fear, rather than from a sense of justice. The great Whig leaders of the reform movement probably did not fully foresee the logical consequences of the Reform Bill which was introduced, and the change which on its enactment would take place in the English Constitution.
Even as it was, the struggle was tremendous. It was an epoch in English history. The question absorbed all other interests and filled all men’s minds. It was whether the House of Commons should represent the privileged and well-to-do middle classes or the nation,–at least a larger part of the nation; not the people generally, but those who ought to be represented,–those who paid considerable taxes to support the government; large towns, as well as obscure hamlets owned by the aristocracy. The popular agitation was so violent that experienced statesmen feared a revolution which would endanger the throne itself. Hence Lord Grey and his associates determined to carry the Reform Bill at any cost, whatever might be the opposition, as the only thing to be done if the nation would escape the perils of revolution.
Lord John Russell was selected by the government to introduce the bill into the House of Commons. He was not regarded as the ablest of the Whig statesmen who had promised reform. His person was not commanding, and his voice was thin and feeble; but he was influential among the aristocracy as being a brother of the Duke of Bedford, head of a most illustrious house, and he had no enemies among the popular elements. Russell had not the eloquence and power and learning of Brougham; but he had great weight of character, tact, moderation, and parliamentary experience. The great hero of reform, Henry Brougham, was, as we have said, no longer in the House of Commons; but even had he been there he was too impetuous, uncertain, and eccentric to be trusted with the management of the bill. Knowing this, his party had elevated him to the woolsack. He would have preferred the office of the Master of the Rolls, a permanent judicial dignity, with a seat in the House of Commons; but to this the king would not consent. Indeed, it was the king himself who suggested the lord chancellorship for Brougham.
Lord Russell was, then, the most prominent advocate of the bill which marked the administration of Lord Grey. It was a great occasion, March 1, 1831, when he unfolded his plan of reform to a full and anxious assembly of aristocratic legislators. There was scarcely an unoccupied seat in the House. At six o’clock he arose, and in a low and humble manner invoked reason and justice in behalf of an enlarged representation. He proposed to give the right of franchise to all householders who paid £10 a year in rates, and who qualified to serve on juries. He also proposed to disfranchise the numerous “rotten boroughs” which were in the gift of noblemen and great landed proprietors,–boroughs which had an insignificant number of voters; by which measure one hundred and sixty-eight parliamentary vacancies would occur. These vacancies were to be partially filled by sending two members each from seven large towns, and one member each from twenty smaller towns which were not represented in Parliament. Lord Russell further proposed to send two members each from four districts of the metropolis, which had a large population, and two additional members each from twenty-six counties; these together would add ninety-four members from towns and counties which had a large population. To obviate the great expenses to which candidates were exposed in bringing voters to the polls (amounting to £150,000 in Yorkshire alone), the bill provided that the poll should be taken in different districts, and should be closed in two days in the towns, and in three days in the counties. The general result of the bill would be to increase the number of electors five hundred thousand,–making nine hundred thousand in all. We see how far this was from universal suffrage, giving less than a million of voters in a population of twenty-five millions. Yet even so moderate and reasonable an enlargement of the franchise created astonishment, and was regarded by the opponents as subversive of the British Constitution; and not without reason, since it threw political power into the hands of the middle classes instead of into those of the aristocracy.
Lord Russell’s motion was, of course, bitterly opposed by the Tories. The first man who arose to speak against it was Sir H. Inglis, member of the university of Oxford,–a fine classical scholar, an accomplished gentleman, and an honest man. He maintained that the proposed alteration in the representation of the country was nothing less than revolution. He eulogized the system of rotten boroughs, since it favored the return to Parliament of young men of great abilities, who without the patronage of nobles would fail in popular elections; and he cited the cases of Pitt, Fox, Burke, Canning, Perceval, and others who represented Appleby, Old Sarum, Wendover, and other places almost without inhabitants. Sir Charles Wetherell, Mr. Croker, and Sir Robert Peel, substantially took the same view; Lord Althorp, Mr. Hume, O’Connell, and others supported the government. Amid intense excitement, for everybody saw the momentous issues at stake, leave was at length granted to Lord John Russell to bring in his bill. No less than seventy-one persons in the course of seven nights spoke for or against the measure. The Press, headed by the “Times,” rendered great assistance to the reform cause, while public meetings were everywhere held and petitions sent to Parliament in favor of the measure. The voice of the nation spoke in earnest and decided tones.
On the 21st of March, 1831, Lord John Russell moved the second reading of the bill; but the majority for it was so small that ministers were compelled to make modifications. After a stormy debate there was a majority of seventy-eight against the government. The ministers, undaunted, at once induced the king to dissolve Parliament, and an appeal was made to the nation. A general election followed, which sent up an overwhelming majority of Liberal members, while many of the leading members of the last Parliament lost their places. On the 21st of June the new Parliament was opened by the king in person. He was received with the wildest enthusiasm by the populace, as he proceeded in state to the House of Lords in his gilded carriage, drawn by eight cream-colored horses. On the 24th of June Lord John Russell again introduced his bill, this time in a bold, manly, and decisive manner, in striking contrast with the almost suppliant tone which he assumed before. On the 4th of July the question of the second reading was brought forward. The discussion was carried on for three nights, and on division the great majority of one hundred and thirty-six was with the government. The only hope of the opposition was now in delay; and factious divisions were made on every point possible as the bill went through the committee. The opposition was most vexatious. Praed made twenty-two speeches against the bill, Sugden eighteen, Pelham twenty-eight, Peel forty-eight, Croker fifty-seven, and Wetherell fifty-eight. Of course the greater part of these speeches were inexpressibly wearisome, and ministers were condemned to sit and listen to the stale arguments, which were all that the opposition could make. Never before in a legislative body was there such an amount of quibbling and higgling, and “speaking against time;” and it was not till September 19 that the third reading came on, the obstructions in committee having been so formidable and annoying. On the 22d of September the bill finally passed in the House of Commons by a majority of one hundred and six, after three months of stormy debate.
But the parliamentary battles were only partially fought; victory in the end was certain, but was not yet obtained. It was necessary that the bill should pass the House of Lords, where the opposition was overwhelming.
On the very evening of September 22 the bill was carried to the Lords, and Lords Althorp and Russell, with one hundred other members of the Commons, entered the Upper House with their message. The Lord Chancellor Brougham advanced to the bar with the usual formalities, and received the bill from the hands of Lord John Russell. He then resumed his seat on the woolsack, and communicated to the assembled peers the nature of the message. Earl Grey moved that the bill be read a first time, and the time was agreed to. On the 3d of October the premier addressed the House in support of the bill,–a measure which he had taken up in his youth, not so much from sympathy with the people as from conviction of its imperative necessity. There was great majesty in the manner of the patrician minister as he addressed his peers; his eye sparkled with intelligence, and his noble brow betokened resolution and firmness, while his voice quivered with emotion. Less rhetorical than his great colleague the Lord Chancellor, his speech riveted attention. For forty-five years the aged peer had advocated parliamentary reform, and his voice had been heard in unison with that of Fox before the French Revolution had broken out. Lord Wharncliffe, one of the most moderate and candid of his opponents, followed. Lord Melbourne, courteous and inoffensive, supported the bill, because, as he said, he dreaded the consequences of a refusal of concession to the demands of the people, rather than because he loved reform, which he had previously opposed. The Duke of Wellington of course uttered his warning protest, and was listened to more from his fame as a warrior than from his merits as a speaker. Lord Brougham delivered one of the most masterly of his great efforts in favor of reform, and was answered by Lord Lyndhurst in a speech scarcely inferior in mental force. The latter maintained that if the bill became a law the Constitution would be swept away, and even a republic be established on its ruins. Lord Tenterden, another great lawyer, took the side of Lord Lyndhurst, followed in the same strain by Dr. Howley, Archbishop of Canterbury. On a division, there was a majority of forty-one peers against the bill.
The news spread with rapidity to every corner of the land that the Lords had defeated the reform for which the nation clamored. Never in England was there greater excitement. The abolition of the House of Lords was everywhere discussed, and in many places angrily demanded. People could do nothing but talk about the bill, and politics threw all business into the shade. An imprudent speech from an influential popular leader might have precipitated the revolution which the anti-reformers so greatly dreaded. The disappointed people for the most part, however, restrained their wrath, and contented themselves with closing their shops and muffling their church bells. The bishops especially became objects of popular detestation. The Duke of Newcastle and the Marquis of Londonderry, being peculiarly obnoxious, were personally assailed by a mob of incensed agitators. The Duke of Cumberland, brother of the king, was dragged from his horse, while the mob demolished the windows of the palace which the nation had given to the Duke of Wellington. Throughout the country in all the large towns there were mobs and angry meetings and serious disturbances. At Birmingham a rude and indignant meeting of one hundred and fifty thousand people vented their wrath against those who opposed their enfranchisement. The most alarming of the riots took place in Bristol, of which Sir Charles Wetherell was the recorder, and he barely escaped being murdered by the mob, who burned most of the principal public buildings. The example of Bristol was followed in other towns, and the whole country was in a state of alarm.
In the midst of these commotions Parliament was prorogued. But the passage of the bill became more than ever an obvious necessity in order to save the country from violence; and on December 12 Lord John Russell brought forward his third Reform Bill, which, substantially like the first, passed its second reading January 17, 1832, by the increased majority of one hundred and sixty-two. When considered in committee the old game of obstruction and procrastination was played by the opposition; but in spite of it, the bill finally passed the House on the 23d of March.
The question which everybody now asked was, What will the Lords do? It was certain that they would throw out the bill, as they did before, unless extraordinary measures were taken by the government. The creation of new peers, enough to carry the bill, was determined upon if necessary, although regretted by Lord Grey. To this radical measure there was great opposition on the part of the king, although he had thus far given the bill his support; but the reformers insisted upon it, if reform could not be accomplished in any other way. To use a vulgar expression, Lord Brougham fairly “bulldozed” his sovereign, and the king never forgave him. His assent was at last most reluctantly given; but the peers, dreading the great accession to their ranks of sixty or severity Liberal noblemen, concluded to give way, led by the Duke of Wellington, and the bill passed the House of Lords on the 4th of June.
The Reform Bill of 1832 was the protest of the middle classes against evils which had been endured for centuries,–a protest to which the aristocracy was compelled to listen. Amid terrible animosities and fearful agitations, reaching to the extremities of the kingdom, the bill was finally passed by the Liberal members, who set aside all other matters, and acted with great unanimity and resolution.
As noted above, during this exciting parliamentary contest the great figure of Henry Brougham had disappeared from the House of Commons; but more than any other man, he had prepared the way for those reforms which the nation had so clamorously demanded, and which in part they had now achieved. From 1820 to 1831 he had incessantly labored in the lower House, and but little was done without his aid. It would have been better for his fame had he remained a commoner. He was great not only as a parliamentary orator, but as a lawyer. His labors were prodigious. Altogether, at this period he was the most prominent man in England, the most popular among the friends of reform, and the most hated by his political enemies,–a fierce, overbearing man, with great talent for invective and sarcasm, eccentric, versatile, with varied rather than profound learning. When Lord Melbourne succeeded Lord Grey as premier, Brougham was left out of the cabinet, being found to be irascible, mischievous, and unpractical; he retired, an embittered man, to private life, but not to idleness, He continued to write popular and scientific essays, articles for reviews, and biographical sketches, taking an interest in educational movements, and in all questions of the day. He was always a lion in society, and, next to Sir Walter Scott, was the object of greatest curiosity to American travellers. Although great as statesman, orator, lawyer, and judge, his posthumous influence is small compared with that which he wielded in his lifetime,–which, indeed, may be said of most statesmen, the most noted exception to the rule being Lord Bacon.
With Brougham in the upper House, Lord John Russell had become the most prominent man in the lower; but being comparatively a poor man, he was contented to be only paymaster of the forces,–the most lucrative office in the government. His successful conduct of the great Reform Bill gave him considerable prestige. In the second ministry of Lord Melbourne, 1834-1841, Lord Russell was at first colonial and afterward home secretary. Whatever the post he filled, he filled it with credit, and had the confidence of the country; for he was honest, liberal, and sensible. He was not, however, an orator, although he subsequently became a great debater. I have often heard him speak, both in and out of Parliament; but I was never much impressed, or even interested. He had that hesitating utterance so common with aristocratic speakers, both clerical and lay, and which I believe is often assumed. In short, he had no magnetism, without which no public speaker can interest an ordinary audience; but he had intelligence, understood the temper of the House, and belonged to a great historical family, which gave him parliamentary influence. He represented the interests of the wealthy middle classes,–liberal as a nobleman, but without any striking sympathy with the people. After the passage of the Reform Bill, he was unwilling to go to any great lengths in further reforms, and therefore was unpopular with the radicals, although his spirit was progressive. It was his persistent advocacy of parliamentary reform which had made him prominent and famous, and it was his ability as a debater which kept him at the head of his party. Historians speak of him without enthusiasm, but with great respect. The notable orators of that day were O’Connell and Brougham. As a platform speaker, probably no one ever surpassed the Irish leader.
After the passage of the Reform Bill, the first thing of importance to which the reform Parliament turned its attention was the condition of Ireland. The crimes committed in that unfortunate country called loudly for coercive measures on the part of the government. The murders, the incendiary fires, the burglaries and felonious assaults, were unprecedented in number and atrocity. The laws which had been passed for the protection of life and property had become a dead letter in some of the most populous districts. Jurors were afraid to attend the assizes, and the nearest relatives of the victims dared not institute proceedings; even magistrates were deterred from doing their duty. In fact, crime went unpunished, and the country was rapidly sinking into semi-barbarism. In the single year of 1832 there were two hundred and forty-two homicides, eleven hundred and seventy-nine robberies, four hundred and one burglaries, five hundred and sixty-eight house-burnings, one hundred and sixty-one serious assaults, two hundred and three riots, besides other crimes,–altogether to the number of over nine thousand. A bill was accordingly brought into the Upper House by Lord Grey to give to the lord-lieutenant power to substitute courts-martial for the ordinary courts of justice, to enter houses for the purpose of searching for arms, and to suspend the act of habeas corpus in certain districts. The bill passed the Lords without difficulty, but encountered severe opposition in the House of Commons from the radical members and from O’Connell and his followers. Nevertheless it passed, with some alterations, and was at once put in force in the county of Kilkenny, with satisfactory results. The diminution of crime was most marked; and as the excuse for disturbances arose chiefly from the compulsory tithes which the Catholic population were obliged to pay in support of the Protestant Church, the ministry wisely attempted to alleviate the grievance. It was doubtless a great injustice for Catholics to be compelled to support the Established Church of England; but the ministry were not prepared to go to the length which the radicals and the Irish members demanded,–the complete suppression of the tithe system; in other words, “the disestablishment of the Irish Church.” They were willing to sacrifice a portion of the tithes, to reduce the number of bishops, and to apply some of the ecclesiastical property to secular purposes. But even this concession called out a fierce outcry from the conservatives, in and out of Parliament. A most formidable opposition came from the House of Lords, headed by Lord Eldon; but the ministers were at last permitted to carry out their measure.
Nothing satisfactory, however, was accomplished in reference to the collection of tithes, in spite of the concession of the ministers. The old difficulty remained. Tithes could not be collected except at the point of the bayonet, which of course was followed by crimes and disturbances that government could not prevent. In 1833 the arrears of tithes amounted to over a million of pounds, and the Protestant clergy were seriously distressed. The cost of collecting tithes was enormous, from the large coercive force which the government was obliged to maintain. When the pay of soldiers and policemen is considered, it took £25,000 to collect £12,000. The collection of tithes became an impossibility without a war of extermination. Every expedient failed. Even the cabinet was divided on all the schemes proposed; for every member of it was determined to uphold the Established Church, in some form or other.
At last Mr. Ward, member for St. Albans, in 1834 brought forward in the Commons a measure which had both reason and justice to commend it. After showing that the collection of tithes was the real cause of Irish discontents, that only a fourteenth of the population of Ireland were in communion with the English Church, that nearly half of the clergy were non-residents, and that there was a glaring inequality in the salaries of clergymen,–so that some rectors received from £500 to £1,000 in parishes where there were only ten or twelve Protestants, while some of the resident clergy did duty for less than £20 per annum,–he moved the following: “Resolved, that as the Protestant Episcopal Establishment of Ireland exceeds the spiritual wants of the Protestant population, it is the opinion of the House that the temporal possessions of the Church of Ireland ought to be reduced.” The motion was seconded by Mr. Grote, the celebrated historian; but Lord Althorp rose and requested the House to adjourn, in consequence of circumstances he was not prepared to mention. All understood that there was trouble in the cabinet itself; and when the House reassembled, it was found that the Duke of Richmond, Earl Ripon, Lord Stanley (colonial secretary), and Sir James Graham, being opposed to the appropriation of the funds of the Irish Church to other than ecclesiastical purposes, had resigned. The king himself was strongly opposed to the motion, to say nothing of the peers; and the conservative part of the nation, from the long-inherited jealousy of the Catholic Church, stood upon the same ground.
While ministers were tinkering on the affairs of Ireland, without lofty purpose or sense of justice or enlightened reason even, the gigantic figure of O’Connell appeared in striking contrast with the statesmen who opposed him and tried in vain to intimidate him. The great agitator had made his power felt long before the stormy debates in favor of reform took place, which called out the energies of Brougham,–the only man in England to be compared with O’Connell in genius, in eloquence, in intellect, and in wrath, but inferior to him in the power of moving the passions of an audience, yet again vastly superior to him in learning. While Brougham was thundering in the senate in behalf of reform,–the most influential and the most feared of all its members, without whose aid nothing could be done,–O’Connell was haranguing the whole Catholic population of Ireland in favor of a repeal of the Union, looking upon the evils which ground down his countrymen as beyond a remedy under the English government. He also made his voice ring with startling vehemence in the English Parliament, as soon as the Catholic Emancipation bill enabled him to enter it as the member from Clare, always advocating justice and humanity, whatever the subject under consideration might be. So long as O’Connell was “king of Ireland,” as William IV declared him to be, nothing could be done by English ministers on Irish matters. His agitations were tremendous, and yet he kept within the laws. His mission was to point out evils rather than to remove them. No man living was capable of pointing out the remedy. On all Irish questions the wisdom and experience of English statesmen were in vain. Yet amid the storms which beat over the unhappy island, the voice of the great pilot was louder than the tempests, which he seems to control as if by magic. Mr. Gladstone, in one of his later contributions to literature, has done justice to the motives and the genius of a man whom he regards as the greatest that Ireland has ever produced, if Burke may be excepted, yet a man whom he bitterly opposed in his parliamentary career. Faithful alike to the interests of his church and his country, O’Connell will ever be ranked among the most imposing names of history, although he failed in the cause to which he consecrated his talents, his fortune, his energies, and his fame. Long and illustrious is the list of reformers who have been unsuccessful; and Mr. O’Connell must be classed with these. Yet was he one who did not live in vain.
Incapable of effectively dealing with the problem, the government temporized and resolved to stave off the difficulty. A commission was appointed to visit every parish in Ireland and report the state of affairs to Parliament, when everybody already knew what this state was,–one of glaring inequality and injustice, exceedingly galling to the Catholic population. Nor was this the only Irish Church question that endangered the stability of the ministry. Tithe bill after tithe bill had been passed, and all alike had failed. Mr. Ward had argued for the entire abolition of the tithe system, from the expense and difficulty of collecting tithes, leaving the clergy to be supported by the crown. A new tithe bill was, however, introduced, by which the clergy should accept something short of what they were entitled to by law. Not only was the tithing system an apparently inextricable tangle, but there was trouble about the renewal of the Coercion Act. Lord Grey, wearied with political life, resigned the premiership, and Lord Melbourne succeeded him,–a statesman who cared next to nothing for reform; not an incapable man, but lazy, genial, and easy, whose watchword was, “Can’t you let it alone?” But he did not long retain office, the king being dissatisfied with his ministers; and Sir Robert Peel, being then at Rome, was sent for to head the new administration in July, 1834. It may be here remarked that Mr. Gladstone first took office under this government. Parliament, of course, was dissolved, and a new election took place. The Whigs lost thereby much of their power, but still were a majority in the House, and the new Tory government found that the Irish difficulties were a very hard nut to crack.
The new Parliament met Feb. 15, 1835; and as the new government came into power by defeating the Whigs on the subject of the Irish Church, it was bound to offer some remedy for the trouble which existed. Accordingly, Lord Morpeth, the eldest son of the Earl of Carlisle, and closely allied with the Duke of Sutherland and other great families,–agreeable, kindly, and winning in his manners, and of very respectable abilities,–on June 26 introduced his Tithe Bill, by which he proposed to convert the tithe itself into a rent-charge, reducing it to a lower amount than the late Whig government had done. His bill, however, came to nothing, since any appropriation clearly dealing with surplus revenues failed to satisfy the Lords.
Before anything could be done with Ireland, the Peel ministry was dissolved, and the Whigs returned to power, April 18, 1835, with Lord Melbourne again as prime minister. But the Irish difficulties remained the same, the conservatives refusing to agree to any bill which dealt with any part of the revenues of the State church; and the question was not finally settled for Ireland till after it was settled in England.
Thus the reformed Parliament failed in its attempt to remove the difficulties which attended Irish legislation. It failed from the obstinacy of the conservatives, among Whigs as well as Tories, to render justice in the matter of rates and tithes,–the great cause of Irish discontent and violence at that time. It will be seen that new complications arose with every successive Parliament from that time to this, landlords finding it as difficult to collect their rents as the clergy did their tithes. And these difficulties appear to be as great to-day as they were fifty years ago. It still remains to be seen how Ireland can be satisfactorily governed by any English ministry likely to be formed. On that rock government after government, both liberal and conservative, has been wrecked, and probably will continue to be wrecked long after the present generation has passed away, until the English nation itself learns to take a larger view, and seeks justice rather than the conservation of vested interests.
But if the reformed Parliament failed to restore order in Ireland, and to render that justice which should have followed the liberal principles it invoked, yet in matters strictly English great progress was made in the removal of crying evils.
Among these was the abolition of slavery in the British West India Islands, which as early as 1833 occupied the attention of the House, even before the discussion on Irish affairs. The slave-trade had been suppressed long before this, through the untiring labors and zeal of Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay (father of the historian), and other philanthropists. But the evils of slavery still existed,–cruelty and oppression on the part of slave-owners, and hardships and suffering on the part of slaves. Half-caste women were bought and sold, and flogged and branded. As early as 1823 Fowell Buxton, then in Parliament, furnished with facts by Zachary Macaulay, who had been manager of a West India estate, brought in a motion for the abolition of slavery. Canning was then the leading member of the House of Commons; although he did not go so far as Buxton, still he did something to remedy the evils of the system, and was supported by Brougham, Mackintosh, and Lushington,–so that the flogging of women was abolished, and married slaves were not separated from their children. In 1830, Henry Brougham introduced a motion for the total abolition of slavery in the British colonies, and thrilled the House by his eloquence and passion; but his motion was defeated. When the new reform Parliament met in 1831, more pressing questions occupied its attention; but at length, in 1833, Buxton made a forcible appeal to ministers to sweep away the greatest scandal of the age. He was supported by Lord Stanley, then colonial secretary, who eloquently defended the cause of liberty and humanity; and he moved that effectual measures be at once taken to abolish slavery altogether, with some modifications. Thomas Babington Macaulay, who had entered Parliament in 1830, also brought all his eloquence to bear in behalf of the cause; and the upshot of the discussion was that Parliament set free the slaves, and their masters received twenty millions of pounds as a compensation. Thus the long agitation of fifty years pertaining to negro emancipation in the British dominions was closed forever. The heart of England was profoundly moved by this act of blended justice, humanity, and generosity, which has been quoted with pride by every Englishman from that time to this. Possibly a similar national assumption of the vast expense of recompensing English owners of Irish lands may at some time relieve Ireland of alien landlordism and England of her greatest reproach.
The condition of Hindostan next received the attention of Parliament; and on the renewal of the charter of the East India Company, in 1833, its commercial monopoly was abolished, and trade with the East was thrown open to the merchants of all the world. The political jurisdiction of the Company was, however, retained.
The new Parliament then turned its attention to a reduction of taxes. The duty on tiles was repealed; also the two-shilling stamp duty on advertisements, together with the vexatious duty on soap. Dramatic copyrights also received protection, and an improvement in the judicial administration was effected. Sinecure offices were abolished in the Court of Chancery, and the laws of dower and inheritance were amended.
The members most active in these reforms were Lord Althorp, Daniel O’Connell, Joseph Hume, and William Cobbett. Lord Althorp, afterward Earl Spencer, made not less than one thousand speeches, and O’Connell six hundred, in support of these reforms,–all tending to a decrease in taxation, made feasible by the great increase of wealth and the abolition of useless offices.
The Trade Unions (a combination of operatives to secure improvement in their condition) marked the year 1834, besides legislative enactments to reduce taxation. Before 1824 it was illegal for workmen to combine, even in the most peaceable manner, for the purpose of obtaining an increase of wages. This injustice was removed the following year, and strikes became numerous among the different working-classes, but were generally easily suppressed by the capitalists, who were becoming a great power with the return to national prosperity. For fifty years the vexed social problem of “strikes” has been discussed, but is not yet solved, giving intense solicitude to capitalists and corporations, and equal hope to operatives. The year 1834, then, showed the commencement of the great war between capital and labor which is so damaging to all business operations, and the ultimate issue of which cannot be predicted with certainty,–but which will probably lead to a great amelioration of the condition of the working-classes and the curtailment of the incomes of rich men, especially those engaged in trade and manufactures. There will always be, without doubt, disproportionate fortunes, and capitalists can combine as well as laborers; but if the strikes which are multiplying year by year in all the countries of Europe and the United States should end in a great increase of wages, so as to make workmen comfortable (for they will never be contented), the movement will prove beneficent. Already far more has been accomplished for the relief of the poor by a combination of laborers against hard-hearted employers than by any legislative enactments; but when will the contest between capital and labor cease? Is it pessimism to say that it is likely to become more and more desperate?
The “Poor Law Amendment” was passed July, 1834, during the administration of Lord Melbourne,–Lord Grey having resigned, from the infirmities of age and the difficulties of carrying on the government. He had held office nearly four years, which exceeded the term of his predecessor the Duke of Wellington; and only four premiers have held office for a longer period since 1754. The Poor Law Amendment, supported by all political parties, was passed in view of the burdensome amount of poor rates and the superior condition of the pauper to that of many an independent laborer.
The ill management of the beer-houses led to another act in 1834, requiring a license to sell beer, which was granted only to persons who could produce a certificate of good character from six respectable inhabitants of a parish.
The session of Parliament in 1834 was further marked by a repeal of the house tax, by grants for building schoolhouses, by the abolition of sinecure offices in the House of Commons, and by giving new facilities for the circulation of foreign newspapers through the mails. There was little or no opposition to reforms which did not interfere with landed interests and the affairs of Ireland. Even Sir Robert Peel, in his short administration, was not unfriendly to extending privileges to Dissenters, nor to judicial, municipal, and economical reform generally.
The most important of the measures brought forward by Whig ministers under Lord Melbourne was the reform of municipal corporations. For two hundred years the abuses connected with these corporations had been subjects of complaint, but could not easily be remedied, in consequence of the perversion of municipal institutions to political ends. The venal boroughs, which both Whig and Tory magnates controlled, were the chief seats of abuses and scandals. When these boroughs were disfranchised by the Reform Bill, a way was opened for the local government of a town by its permanent residents, instead of the appointment of magistrates by a board which perpetuated itself, and which was controlled by the owners of boroughs in the interests of the aristocracy. In consequence of the passing of the municipal reform act, through the powerful advocacy of Lord John Russell, the government of the town passed to its own citizens, and became more or less democratic, not materially differing from the government of cities in the United States. Under able popular leaders, the towns not only became a new political power in Parliament, but enjoyed the privilege of electing their own magistrates and regulating their domestic affairs,–such as the police, schools, the lighting of streets, and public improvements generally.
Besides this important act, some other salutary measures for the general good were carried by parliamentary leaders,–such as enlarging the copyrights of authors, lecturers, and dramatists; abolishing imprisonment for debt for small sums; amending the highway and the marriage laws; enforcing uniformity in weights and measures, regulating prison discipline, and commuting death punishment for many crimes. These reforms, having but little reference to partisan politics, received the approbation of both Whigs and Tories. Most of the important bills which passed the Parliament from the accession of William IV., however, were directly or indirectly the result of the Reform Bill of 1832, which had enlarged the representation of the people.
William IV. died in January, 1837, after a short but prosperous reign of seven years, much lamented by the nation. He was a frank, patriotic, and unconventional king, who accepted the reforms which made his reign an epoch. At his death there were more distinguished men in all departments of politics, literature, science, and art in Great Britain than at any previous period, and the condition of the people was more ameliorated than had been known since the Reformation. A great series of reforms had been peaceably effected without revolution; the kingdom was unusually prosperous; so that Queen Victoria, William’s niece, the daughter of his brother the Duke of Kent (whose previous death had made Victoria heir-apparent to the throne), entered upon her illustrious reign under hopeful auspices, June 21, 1837. The reform spirit had passed through no reactions, and all measures which were beneficent in their tendency were favorably considered.
In 1837 Mr. Rowland Hill proposed the startling suggestion that all existing rates of postage should be abolished, and the penny postage substituted for all parts of the kingdom, irrespective of distance. This was not at first accepted by the government or post-office officials; but its desirableness was so apparent that Parliament yielded to the popular voice and it became a law, with increased gain ultimately to the national finances, to say nothing of its immense influence in increasing knowledge. The old postage law had proved oppressive to all classes except members of Parliament, who had the franking privilege, which the new law abolished. Under the old system, the average of letters mailed was annually only four to each person. In 1875 it was thirty-three, and the net revenue to the nation was nearly two million pounds sterling.
Another great reform was effected in the early part of the reign of Victoria,–that of the criminal code, effected chiefly through the persevering eloquence of Sir James Mackintosh; although Sir Samuel Romilly, an eminent and benevolent barrister, as early as 1808, had labored for the same end. But thirty years had made a great change of opinion in reference to the punishment of crime, which was cruelly severe. Capital offences numbered at the beginning of the century nearly two hundred and fifty, some of which were almost venial; but in 1837 only seven crimes were punishable with death, and the accused were allowed benefit of counsel. Before this, the culprit could be condemned without a hearing,–a gross violation of justice, which did not exist even under the imperial despotism of the Caesars.
Such were the most important measures passed by the reformed Parliament during the ten years’ administration of the Whigs, most of which were the logical results of the Reform Bill of 1832, which made the reign of William IV. the most memorable in the domestic history of England since the great Revolution which hurled the Stuarts from their throne. But the country was not satisfied with these beneficent reforms. A great agitation had already begun, under the leadership of Cobden and Bright, for a repeal of the Corn Laws. The half measures of the Liberal government displeased all parties, and the annual deficit had made it unpopular. After vainly struggling against the tide of discontent, the Melbourne ministry was compelled to resign, and in 1841 began the second ministry of Sir Robert Peel, which gave power to the Tories for five or six years. Lord Lyndhurst returned to his seat on the woolsack, Mr. Goulburn was appointed chancellor of the exchequer, Sir James Graham became home secretary, Lord Aberdeen took the foreign department, and Lord Stanley the colonial office. Into this cabinet Mr. Gladstone entered as president of the board of trade, on the retirement of Earl Ripon.
The Duke of Wellington also had a seat in the cabinet, but held no office, his age and infirmities preventing him from active duties. He was “the grand old man” of his generation, and had received unparalleled honors, chiefly for his military services,–the greatest general whom England has produced, if we except Marlborough. Although his fame rests on his victories in a great national crisis, he was also an able statesman,–sensible, practical, patriotic; a man of prejudices, yet not without tact; of inflexible will, yet yielding to overpowering necessities, and accepting political defeat as he did the loss of a battle, gracefully and magnanimously. If he had not, however, been a popular idol for his military exploits, he would have been detested by the people; for no one in England was more aristocratic in his sympathies than he, no one was fonder of honors and fashionable distinctions, no one had a more genuine contempt for whatever was plebeian and democratic.
In coming lectures,–on Sir Robert Peel, Gladstone, etc.,–we shall find occasion to trace the course of Victoria’s beneficent reign over Great Britain, beginning (as it did) after the abuses and distresses culminating under George IV. had been largely relieved during the memorable reform epoch under William IV.
Miss Martineau’s History of England; Molesworth’s History of England; Mackenzie’s History of the Nineteenth Century, Alison’s History of Europe; Annual Register; Lives of Lord Brougham, Wellington, Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell, Lord Liverpool, and Sir Robert Peel. These are the most accessible authorities, but the list is very large.
 A quarter of a gross ton.