1902 Encyclopedia > England > [English History] Great Britain, 1815-1874: George III-IV; William IV; Victoria.

(Part 31)

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Part 31: Great Britain, 1815-1874: George III-IV; William IV; Victoria.

After a long war the difficulties of the victors are often greater than those of the conquered. The conquered have their attention directed to the reparation of losses, and are inspired by a patriotic desire to submit to sacrifices for the sake of their country. The victors are in the frame of mind which expects everything to be easy, and they have been accustomed to direct their energies to the business of overpowering foreign enemies, and to hide their eyes from the constant watchfulness required by the needs of the population at home. The war out which England had come was more than ever calculated to foster this tendency to domestic inaction. To the governing classes despotism, revolution, and reform were almost synonymous. Ministries had succeeded one another: Perceval followed Portland in 1809, and Liverpool followed Perceval in 1812. They were all alike in abhorrence of the very idea of change, in the entire abandonment of those principles of active and intelligent government by which Pitt, whose followers they professed to be, had been always inspired. The supremacy of the proprietors of land, and absolute resistance to reform, were accepted as the rule of government. It made no difference that the king had become permanently insane in 1810, and that the base and sensual prince of Wales became regent in 1811, till he ascended the throne in 1820 as George IV.

The wrongs of the propertied classes could make themselves heard. In 1815 a corn law had been passed prohibiting the import of corn till the price was above 80s. a quarter. In 1816 the ministry were compelled to submit to the repeal of the property tax, and abandoned the malt tax without pressure. In the meanwhile the agricultural and industrial poor were on the verge of starvation. It would be absurd to draw too close a comparison, between the position of the English upper classes at this time and of the French upper classes before the Revolution. But there was the same tendency to use political power as a support for their own material interests, the same neglect of the wants and feelings of those who had none to help them. Those in authority were naturally startled when, at a time when mobs driven to desperation were breaking machines and burning ricks, Cobbett in his Weekly Political Register was advocating universal suffrage and annual parliaments. The revolution struck down in France appeared to be at the doors in England.

In great part, no doubt, the misery was brought about by causes over which no Government could have had any control,—by the breaking up of the irregular channels through which commerce had flowed during the war. But it was in great part, too, owing to the incidence of the protective system to which the Government, widely departing from the track marked out by the early steps of Pitt, was giving effect with the full support of the manufacturing as well as the landowning class.

A riot in London (1816), and a missile thrown at the carriage of the prince regent, roused in parliament something like the repressive violence of 1794. Even the brilliant Canning, the ablest of the disciples of Pitt, declaimed against the parliamentary reform which was now asked for in so many quarters. Act, of which the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was the most severe, were passed to strengthen the hands of the ministry. Seditious meeting, mingled with real or imaginary projects of insurrection, kept the alarm of the upper classes on the stretch. But, as in 1794, juries were suspicious of evidence furnished by spies, and refused to convict on insufficient proof.

The strife between classes culminated in 1819. Large meetings in the open air were held in the great towns, and inflammatory speeches were freely addressed to them. Some of the speakers were arrested. At Stockport the constable in charge of one of the prisoners was attacked and shot. Birmingham, a great unrepresented town, elected a "legislatorial attorney." A large meeting was summoned at Manchester, another great unrepresented town, to follow the example. The meeting was declared by the magistrates to be illegal, and another meeting was accordingly summoned for the undoubtedly legal purpose of petitioning for parliamentary reform. On the appointed day thousands poured in from the surrounding districts. These men had been previously drilled, for the purpose, as their own leaders asserted, of enabling them to preserve orders,—for the purpose, as the magistrates suspected, of preparing them to take part in an armed insurrection. A fruitless attempt by the magistrates to arrest a popular agitator named Hunt as he was preparing to address the crowd was followed up by a charge of cavalry. Six persons were killed, and a far larger number were wounded in the onslaught. The Manchester massacre divided the kingdom into opposite camps. The use of military violence roused a feeling which struck a chord of old English feeling inherited from the days when Oliver’s dragoons had made themselves hated. Large meetings were held to protest, and were addressed by men who had but little sympathy with the previous agitation. Parliament replied by enacting new laws, known as the Six Acts, in restraint of sedition, by sharpening the power of the administrators of justice. The Government took up the same antagonistic position against the right of Englishmen to meet for political purposes which had been taken up in the days of the Reign of Terror. But the very fact that there was no reign of terror on the other side of the Channel weakened its hands. The intelligence of the country was no longer on their side. Lord Sidmouth, the Addington who had made so inefficient a prime minister, was not the man to gain support as home secretary for a policy of severity which was only the disguise of weakness; and Lord Castlereagh, to whom was intrusted the management of foreign affairs, had disgusted all generous minds by his sympathy with despotic rule upon the Continent.

Soon after George IV. became king, on the death of his father in 1820, the alienation of the people from the Government was marked by the indignation aroused by the attempts of ministers to pass a Bill of Pains and Penalties depriving the new queen of her rights as the wife of the sovereign on the ground of the alleged immorality of her conduct. Even those who suspected or believed that her conduct had not been blameless, were shocked at an attempt made by a king whose own life was one of notorious profligacy, and whose conduct towards his wife had been cruel and unfeeling, to gain his own ends at the expense of one whom he had expelled from his home and had exposed to every form of temptation. The failure of the ministers to carry the Bill of Pains and Penalties was a turning-point in the history of the country. The existing system lost its hold on the moral feelings as well as on the intelligence of the nation. For some time to come, sympathy with parliamentary reform would be confined to the ranks of the Opposition. But in 1822 the death of Lord Castlereagh, who had recently become Lord Londonderry, and the retirement of Lord Sidmouth, placed Canning in the secretaryship for foreign affairs and Peel at the home office.

Canning carried the foreign policy of the country in a new direction. The desire for peace had led the ministry to support the Holy Alliance, a league formed between the absolute sovereigns of the Continent for the suppression in common of all popular movements. Canning broke loose from these old traditions. He made himself loved or hated by offering, without purpose of aggression or aggrandizement, aid or countenance to nations threatened by the great despotic monarchies; and he thus to some extent placed limits on the power of the military despotisms of Europe. Far more cautious and conservative than Canning, Pell took up the work which had been begun by Romilly, and put an end to the barbarous inflictions of the penalty of death for slight offences. After Canning’s short ministry, followed by his death (1827), Peel, after consenting to the abolition of the test and Corporation Acts, passed a bill, in conjunction with the new prime minister the duke of Wellington, to admit Catholic to a seat in parliament, thus carrying our Pitt’s great plan, though sadly late. From 1823 to 1828 Huskisson, as president of the Board of trade, had been at work loosening the bonds of commercial restriction, and thus carrying out Pitt’s policy in another direction.

Such changes, however, were only an instalment of those which were demanded by the now ripened public opinion of the country; and as the ministers had not been the initiators of the late concessions to Catholics and dissenters, they failed to obtain any enthusiastic support from reformers; whilst the fact that the concessions had been made alienated the opponents of reform. On the death of George IV. and the accession of William IV. (1830), a new ministry, a combination of Whigs and Canningites, came into office under Lord Grey.
After a struggle lasting over more than a year, parliamentary reform was carried in the teeth of the opposition of the House of Lords. The franchise was so arranged as to give a very large share of influence to the middle classes of the towns. But though the landowning aristocracy was no longer supreme, it was by no means thrown on the ground. Lords and gentlemen of large estate and ancient lineage had taken the lead in the reforming cabinet, and the class which had the advantages of leisure and position on its side would have no difficulty in leading, as soon as it abandoned the attempt to stand alone. Fortunately, too, at the time when the institutions of our country were refounded on a broader basis, science had long taken a form which impressed the minds of the people with a reverence for knowledge. Mechanical inventions, which had accomplished such wonders in the middle of the 18th century, entered upon a fresh period of development when the first passenger railway train was dragged by a locomotive in 1830. mental power applied to the perfecting of manufacture is not in itself higher than mental power applied in other directions, but it is more easily understood and more readily respected. Experience taught large masses of men to submit to the guidance of those who knew what they did not know. Amongst statesmen, too, the shock to the old order produced an open mind for the reception of new ideas, and the necessity of basing authority on a wider foundation produced a desire for the spread of education, and gave rise to a popular literature which aimed at interpreting to the multitude the thoughts by which their conduct might be influenced.

The first great act of the reformed parliament bore the impress of the higher mind of the nation. The abolition of slavery (1833) in all British colonies did credit to its hearts; the new poor-law (1834) did credit to its understanding. An attempt to strip the Irish established church of some of its revenues broke up the ministry. There were differences amongst the members of the Government, and those differences were echoed in the country. The king was frightened at the number of changes demanded, dismissed his ministers, and intrusted the formation of anew Government to Sir Robert Peel. The new Government abandoned the title of Tory for the tile of Conservative.

It was the last time that the sovereign actively interfered in the change of a ministry. The habits of parliament had been much changed since the days of the Regency Bill of 1788, when it was acknowledged by all that a change of ministry would follow the announcement of the accession of the Prince of Wales to power, without any corresponding change in the political temper of parliament. Sinecure appointments had recently been lopped away with an unsparing hand, and the power of corrupting members of parliament had been taken away. The character of the members themselves had risen. They were more deeply interested in political causes themselves, and were too clearly brought under the full light of publicity to make it possible for them to become amenable to those evil influences to which their fathers had succumbed.

The new minister dissolved parliament. The increase in the numbers of his followers showed that the country had to some extent taken alarm. But he could not command a majority, and he resigned office in favour of Lord Melbourne (1835). The Melbourne ministry signalized its accession to office by the reform of the municipal corporations. The came the lowering of the stamp duty on newspapers and the Tithe Commutation Act (1836), benefiting the landholders and the clergy alike. The foundations was laid of many a beneficial change.

The accession of Queen Victoria (1837) did not cut short the tenure of power of the ministry. But the condition of the manufacturing poor was deplorable, and it gave rise to the Chartist agitation for admission to equal political rights wit the middle classes. A large body of Chartists threatened an appeal to physical force, and the terror produced by these threats swelled the tide of Conservation reaction. The ministry suffered, too, from a lack of financial ability. They were bold enough where they saw their way. The introduction of the penny postage (1840) was a daring step in the face of embarrassed finances, though it might be supported by the success of the lowering of the newspaper stamp duty in 1836. In 1841 ministers produced free-trade measures as the best remedy for existing evils. But they were already discredited by past ill success in the management of the exchequer, and the hostile majority in the new parliament which carried Peel to power was the expression as much of want of confidence in their ability as of dislike or their measures.

The Conservative ministry followed in the steps of its predecessors. An income-tax was once more laid on (1842) to enable the prime minister to reduce the duties on imports. With respect to corn, he imposed a sliding scale of duties, which shut out foreign corn in seasons of low prices, and allowed it to come in in sessions of high prices. Outside parliament a great association, the Anti-Corn-Law League, with Richard Cobden as its principle spokesman, poured forth unanswered arguments on behalf of the entire freedom from duty of imported food. It was a fortunate circumstances that the free-trace doctrines won their way by degrees. Victories are not won by reason alone, and it is no wonder that after a parliament in which the landowners were more than usually strong had deprived the manufactures of protection, the manufacturers discovered that the arguments which had been found good in their case would also hold good in the case of the landowners, especially after they had learnt from their own experience that prosperity was likely to result from the change. At last Sir Robert Peel, shaken by argument and moved by the difficulty of providing for an Irish famine, proposed and carried the repeal of the corn duties (1846).

Peel’s resolution broke up his party, and made his retirement from office inevitable. Lord John Russell, who succeeded him, completed the system which Peel had established. The markets were thrown open to foreign as well as to colonial sugar (1846), and the repeal of the navigation laws (1847) enabled the merchant to employ foreign ships and seamen in the conveyance of his goods; and after the short ministry of Lord Derby (1852), another sweeping abolition of duties was carried by Mr Gladstone as chancellor of the exchequer in the ministry of Lord Aberdeen (1853).

The changes in the direction of free trade were accompanied by a large number of other changes which have left their mark on the statute-book and on the habits of the people. There is no mistaking the tendency of this great era of legislation under the influence of the reform by which the balance of power had swayed over to the middle classes in 1832. the idea which was steadily making its way was the idea of testing all questions by the interest of the nation as a whole, and of disregarding in comparison the special interests of particular classes. It was this idea which lay at the root of the scientific doctrine on which the free traders founded their practice, and which commended that practice to imaginations as well as to the desires of the mass of the population.

This combination of thought with popular movement towards equality was but one on the manifestations of that greater movement which had been passing over Europe ever since the beginning of the French Revolution. It was assisted by the character of the material progress of the time. When the soil of the country was covered with a networks of railways, when the electric telegraph began to come into use, and all parts of the country were brought into closer connection with one another, when the circulation of books and newspapers became more easy and more rapid , the sense of unity grew stronger with the growth of the means of communication. Nor was it only the sense of the unity of the various parts of the country which was growing. Class drew nearer to class, and the wants, the desires, and the prejudices of each were better understood than they had formerly been. Slowly but surely the influence of education spread. The duty of legislating for the benefit of the weak and the poor was better understood, tempered by an incr4eaing understanding of the evils of interference with liberty of action. In the midst of the tendency to equality; the old English belief in the virtue of liberty was strengthened by the knowledge imparted by a more scientific conception of human nature.

It was impossible that his change should pass over the national mind without giving rise to a desire to include the working class in that body of electors in whose hands political power was ultimately placed. Before the end of Lord John Russell’s ministry, a new Reform Bill had been introduced by the Government (1852), but it did not pass into law. Soon after Lord Aberdeen’s accession to office the mind of the nation was too completely taken up with foreign affairs to attend to organic changes at home. The attach upon Turkey by the emperor of Russia was resisted by the allied forced of England and France. England was jealous of Russian advancement in the East , and in the hands of the emperors Nicholas the government of Russia was a military despotism so brutal, and was so heavily laid in the scale in opposition to all liberal progress on the Continent, that England and France might well have been regarded as fighting the battle of Europe as well as contending in their own cause. The invasion of the Crimea and the victory of the Alma were followed by the siege of Sebastopol and the successful defence of the heights above Inkerman (1854). Inexperience in war left the English army especially exposed to hardships in the winter; and when operations were resumed in the summer, it was far outnumbered by its French allies, who consequently gained the greater part of the credit of the capture of Sebastopol (1855). In the following winter mistakes had been corrected, and the condition of the English army was worthy of the nation which sent it fort. The peace which was signed at Paris (1856) deprived it of the opportunity of showing its powers. The terms, so far as they imposed restrictions upon Russia, have not proved of any permanent value; and the idea which then prevailed that the Turks were likely to advance in the course of political and social improvement was without any corresponding basis in the region of facts. It was quite right that the settlement of the unhappy regions commonly known as Turkey in Europe should be taken up as European rather than a Russia duty, but it is duty the distractions of jealousies of European powers left unfulfilled, till Russia at last stepped forward to repair their omissions. The indirect results of the Crimea war are to be found in the removal of the pressure with which Russia had weighted on the nations of the Continent; and it may perhaps be fairly argued that the subsequent happy formation of a united Italy and a united Germany were in part rendered possible by the success of England and France under the walls of Sebastopol.

For some time after the Crimean war the business of legislation proceeded without any very great shocks. The suppression of a vast military rebellion in India (1857-9) was followed by the assumption of the direct authority over India by the crown. Though one or two attempts were made to effect an electoral reform, they were wrecked on the apathy or hostility of the nation, and there was generally acquiescence in the course pursued by Lord Palmerston’s ministry 91859), which, after one half-hearted attempt, refused to proceed further with the measure which in had proposed; whilst a succession of financial improvements were carried out by Mr Gladstone, his chancellor of the exchequer. On Lord Palmerston’s death (1865), the new Government, with Earl Russell at its head an Mr Gladstone as the leader of the House of Commons, proposed a measure of reform, and resigned on failing to carry it (1866). Lord Derby succeeded, and Mr Disraeli introduced an elaborate and complicated measure in the House of Commons. By this time the feeling of the working class had risen, and the necessary impulse was thus given to the House. The measure was modified and amplified, and became the law of the land (1867). The working class took its place by the side of the middle and upper class.

As in 1832, a new spirit was breathed into legislation. The first parliament elected under the new system (1868) gave a majority against the opinions of the Conservative ministry. Mr Gladstone became prime minister. The Irish Episcopal Church was disestablished, and the Irish land laws reformed. The ballot was applied to parliamentary elections, a new and improved system of elementary education was set on foot, and the practice of purchasing promotions in the army abolished. But no amount of zeal for improvement will make Englishmen hasty to foget the need of caution and moderation. The time came when the nation was no longer in a reforming mood. Interests of classes and trades were able to make themselves heard. Personal ill-feeling was roused by some members of the ministry, and a new parliament showed a large majority in support of a Conservative ministry (1874). It would not be in place here to discuss the difficulties of the present or the prospects of the future. (S. R. G.)

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