Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter IV. — How the Reform Act was Carried

page 19

Chapter IV.

How the Reform Act was Carried.

The history of the House of Lords may be divided into three parts. At first the Peers and Commoners sat together. Afterwards the Peers dominated, and at last practically nominated the House of Commons. The third period dates from the Reform Act of 1832, when for the first time Lords and Commons were arrayed against each other as representatives of antagonistic principles. Before describing what the Lords have done since the emancipation of the Commons, it may be well to pause a little to describe how that emancipation was brought about.

This is no ancient history. The lesson which the Peers and the People mutually taught each other in the famous struggle of 1831-2 has influenced the relations between the two Houses down to the present day. That lesson—one of the most dangerous that can be taught to any people—was the supremacy of brute force in the settlement of political questions. The Reform Act was not carried by reason but by violence. The Peers capitulated to the menace of revolution. Incendiarism, pillage, murder—these were the only arguments to which the House of Lords would lend an ear. The aid of crime was needed to carry the Reform Act; the rights of the people could only be extorted from the Peers by terrorism and the menace of civil war.

That was the fatal lesson which the democracy received in its cradle from the House of Lords. If Russia is a Despotism tempered by Assassination, England is an Oligarchy tempered by Intimidation.

To overcome the resistance of the House of Lords to Reform it was not sufficient to rely upon constitutional means. Agitation which was law-abiding and orderly was as the idle wind that whistles round the Victoria Tower. The fountains of the Great Deep had to be broken up, the foundations of society disturbed, conspiracy set on foot, and the great red dragon of revolution held in leash ready to be unloosed before the House of Lords would admit the necessity of Reform.

What has been the result? The People, from that time to this, have never forgotten the lesson. The House of Lords has been tolerated because it can always be terrorised. This constant underlying consciousness that without a display of turbulence below there is no hope of concession from above, has been one of the poisonous inheritances which we owe to the House of Lords. How deeply it has sunk into the hearts of Englishmen may be gauged by the following remarkable declaration made by a statesman in temperament as Conservative as in conviction page 20 he is Radical—Lord Morloy. Speaking of the House of Lords in 1884, he said:—

You are dealing with a vast and overwhelming preponderance, a huge deadweight of prejudice, of passion, of interest, of bigotry, of blind class and party spirit—impenetrable by argument, immovable by discussion, beyond the reach of reason, and only to be driven from its hereditary and antiquated entrenchments—not by argument, or by reason, or by discussion, but by force.

There is a certain brutality of the barbarian in that phrase. The sword of Brennus has seldom been more defiantly flung into the political scales. Mr. Chamberlain, whose temperament is as Radical as his political environment is Conservative, did not overstate the case when he told a Welsh audience in 1884:—

The chronicles of the House of Lords are one long record of concessions delayed until they have lost their grace, of rights denied until extorted from their fears. It has been a history of one long contest between the representatives of privilege and the representatives of popular rights; and during this time the Lords have perverted, delayed, and denied justice, until at last they gave, grudgingly and churlishly, what they could no longer withhold.—(Denbigh, October 20, 1884.)

The winter of 1831-2 inaugurated the reign of the English democracy by teaching them to despise a Second Chamber so foolish as to reject as pernicious one year a measure which it was so weak as to inscribe on the Statute Book the next.

It is worth while briefly to recapitulate the salient features of that great object-lesson in practical politics.

England in the later twenties was seething with misery. Discontent was almost universal. Desperate men banded themselves together to do desperate deeds. Ricks were fired, and farmsteadings reduced to ashes. Mills were burnt and machinery destroyed. Occasionally discontent tried to become articulate as at Peterloo, and was massacred back into dumbness and despair. Secret combinations were formed among the artisans of the North and the agricultural labourers of the South. Over the whole land a sullen horror brooded like a nightmare.

In the midst of the universal unrest, the French, as is their wont, flashed a red ray of revolutionary light across the gloom. Almost without an effort, the Citizen King was established on the throne of the Bourbons, and the flight of the Legitimist monarch gave a fillip to the hopes of the masses everywhere. It was in these circumstances and in such an environment that the great struggle began.

At that time the so-called House of Commons was in the pocket of the House of Lords: 471 members, out of a House of 658, were returned by 267 persons of whom 144 were peers; 16 other members were returned by Government influence. Only 171 members were independent.—("Oldfield's Representative History," vol. vi., pp. 285-300.)

The independent members were returned at an expense so enormous that the whole representation of the people was in the hands of the wealthy classes. Members who were returned for pocket boroughs considered themselves liberally treated if they were asked for no other pledge than that they would resign whenever their views differed from those of their patron. While many of the most populous towns had no representative in Parliament, two members were returned to represent a stone wall, other two for an empty park, and two more for a green mound. It was the veriest travesty of a representative system. Yet to the House of Lords and its illustrious chief, the Duke of Wellington, it was almost ideally perfect.

page 21
Said the victor of Waterloo from his place in Parliament in 1830:—

I have never read or heard of any measure up to the present moment which could in any degree satisfy my mind that the state of the representation could be improved or be rendered any more satisfactory to the country at large than at the present moment—(3rd Series, Hansard, vol. ii. col. 1102.)

Very shortly afterwards the Government was defeated, and Lord Grey took office with a programme of Reform.

The new Ministry had no majority to speak of in the House of Commons. It was in a hopeless minority in the House of Lords. Lord John Russell introduced a Reform Bill which disfranchised outright 60 boroughs with less than 2,000 inhabitants, while 47 others each lost one of their members. Of the 167 seats thus obtained 62 were not to be filled up. The others were distributed as follows: London, 8; large towns, 34; English counties, 55; Scotland, 5; Ireland, 3; and Wales, 1. The ten-pound borough householder was to receive a vote, and the leaseholders and copyholders in the counties. The introduction of the Bill was hailed with great enthusiasm in the country. But in the House of rotten boroughs, the second reading was only carried by a majority of one. And before it went into Committee, Ministers were left in a minority of eight.

Parliament was at once dissolved. The people rallied everywhere to the cry, "The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill! "London was illuminated by order of the Lord Mayor, an order enforced by King Demos, who, obeying his instinct as to the only way in which to put the fear of God into the hearts of the Peers, smashed all windows that were unlit, including those of Apsley House. It was a grim earnest of things to come, the first taste of the ultima ratio of the Democracy. The election went everywhere in favour of the Reformers. One hundred anti-Reformers lost their seats. The county members who had opposed Reform "went tumbling like ninepins." Out of 82 county members only six were returned to oppose Reform. When Parliament opened it was found that the Reform Ministry had a majority of 136 returned with an express mandate to carry "the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill."

The defeated Tories resorted to obstruction. From Midsummer till well-nigh Michaelmas they resorted to all the methods of delay, which in those days were primitive and rudimentary. But at last the Bill was sent up to the House of Lords. The second reading was moved on October 2nd.

The measure was admittedly one which struck a heavy blow at the powers and prerogatives of the Peers. The House of Lords, therefore, only exercised a natural instinct in rejecting it on October 7, 1831, by a majority of 199 to 158, after five nights' debate. No vote could have been more legitimate or more justifiable if it be accepted that the function of the House of Lords is to stem the rising tide of democracy and to preserve intact the aristocratic institutions of the country. It was the reductio ad abmrdum of the constitutional paradox. The House of Lords, whose existence is defended by asserting the necessity for an effective check upon a craving for revolutionary change, and which is furnished for that purpose with a decisive veto upon every measure which in its mature and hereditary wisdom it regards as unwise, was fifty years ago confronted by a popular demand for a revolutionary change which it regarded as not merely unwise but dangerous in the extreme. It showed the courage of its convictions; it discharged its function; it rejected the Bill. The result was a conclusive demonstration of the impossibility of working constitutional machinery on page 22 constitutional principles if the House of Lords were to exercise the powers with which it is vested by the law.

The immediate answer of the people was to resort to tumultuary violence, which, by an inevitable law, speedily developed into crime. They hustled and howled at the bishops, detesting them more than all others. And with cause. For until the day of the fatal division it had been the established custom of the Lords Spiritual to vote with the Government of the day. On this occasion the Lawnsleeves broke loose. The Primate denounced the Bill as "mischievous in its tendency and dangerous to the fabric of the Constitution." Twenty-one of the right reverend Fathers in God voted against Reform—only two in its favour. If the bishops had voted for the Bill it would have been carried by a majority of one. So Demos took to drubbing the Lords Spiritual "to teach them to behave," until the bishops hardly dared to venture into the streets.

But it was not enough to rabble the bishops and assault dukes and lords on their way to Parliament House. It was necessary to intimidate the King. A menacing procession of 60,000 persons marched to the gates of St. James's Palace to present an address to the King—an address which was almost in the nature of a command. "Retain your Ministers. Press on the Reform Bill, and expel all anti-Reformers from your Court." "Your will shall be done," replied the frightened monarch. Then the multitude, elate with its triumph over its sovereign, gave itself up to what in our day is known as mafficking. They bellowed threats of violence against the Peers and the Bishops, they mobbed any unfortunate Tory they found in the streets, and finally relieved their excited feelings by breaking some more windows.

In London the demonstrations of hostility to the Peers did not go beyond rough horseplay, accompanied by threats of violence to come. It was far otherwise in the provinces. The pent-up violence of the hour found vent in outbreaks of incendiarism and of crime. The mob at Nottingham got out of hand and expressed their antipathy to the political principles of the Duke of Newcastle by giving to the flames the palatial castle which looks down from its lofty eminence upon the great industrial town which lies at its foot. Riotous mobs assembled, destroying property and subverting order at Derby, Loughborough, and other places. What was more serious was that the Government could no longer rely implicitly upon the obedience of its armed forces. Lord Melbourne, who was then Home Secretary in the Reform Administration—although he personally cared little for Reform—wrote to the King's private secretary on October 25th:—

I am extremely concerned to learn from Dorsetshire that the sprit of party occasioned by the recent election prevails to such a degree in the yeomanry corps of that county, that it is deemed inexpedient to call upon them to act in case of riot provided I the doing so can possibly be avoided.—(Lord Melbourne's Papers, p. 134.)

Two troops of Kentish yeomanry actually resigned because their commanding officers had voted against the Reform Bill. It was reserved for Bristol to give the country the most terrible illustration of the danger of confronting the infuriated populace by a military force which was in no mood to punish turbulence, so long as it was essential to overawe the Lords.

The Recorder of Bristol, Sir Charles Wetherell, had distinguished himself by the vehemence and ardour with which he had opposed the Reform Bill. As ill-luck would have it, he had to attend Quarter Sessions at Bristol soon after the Bill was rejected by the Lords. Sir Charles page 23 Wetherell was a stern, unbending Tory who had no patience with the mob, and he scouted the urgent entreaties of the Mayor of the city that he would postpone the Quarter Sessions till some more convenient season, when the popular fury had had time to cool. Punctually on October 29th Sir Charles made his public entry into the city. As punctually an enormous multitude assembled to give him a public reception, the like of which had never before been accorded to any Recorder at Bristol or elsewhere. Amid the hooting and hissing and howling of the mob, one of whom punctuated the chorus of execration by hurling a stone through the windows of his coach, Sir Charles Wetherell stoutly forced his way to the Court. It was soon evident that no Sessions could be held, and that any attempt to transact business would be broken up by the mob. With the aid of a handful of constables, Sir Charles made his way to the Mansion House.

The situation was serious. The local authorities had no adequate force of constabulary to control the mob. The colonel in command of the nearest military sympathised with the populace, and put every obstacle in the way of the use of the soldiers against the people. The whole city was up. Probably three-fourths or nine-tenths of the citizens only wished to give the Recorder a fright, and to impress upon his mind the intensity of the antipathy excited by his opposition to the Reform Bill. But when thousands of men are in tumult the reckless and unscrupulous minority is master of the situation. The mob attacked the Mansion House, where the Recorder had taken refuge, clamouring for their prey. If they had laid hands on him he would never have emerged alive from the howling maelstrom of excited ruffianism which surged round the Mansion House. To save his life the proud old Tory was compelled, sorely against his will, to assume the dress of a postillion and escape ignominiously from the city. The mob, on finding that its destined victim had escaped, took vengeance on the Mansion House. The criminals realised that the city was in their hands. For three days scenes recalling the worst days of the French Revolution were witnessed in Bristol. The Mansion House, the Custom House, the Excise Office were burnt to the ground. The prisoners were let loose from prison to join in the Carnival of Crime. In Bristol, as in London, the wrath of the people was specially concentrated on the Church, whose prelates had betrayed their trust and voted against the people. In London the Bishops where only mobbed. In Bristol the Bishop's palace was given to the flames. After three days the authorities succeeded in finding some troops whose officers did not hesitate to shoot, and the riot was quelled as by magic. The "Encyclopædia Britannica" thus chronicles this startling episode in the history of the city:—

"The Reform Riots were called 'The Bristol Revolution,' but were simply a revolt of the lowest stratum of society, in whom the mania for plunder superseded all political principles. Forty-five houses, the Bishop's palace, and the prisons were burnt to the ground; twelve of the rioters were killed by the soldiers; several perished in their own fires; four were hanged; thirty were imprisoned; the colonel of the troops committed suicide; and the city was mulcted in £68,208 damages."

"The lowest stratum of society "would never have got out of hand if society itself had not been in revolt against the existing order. It was no doubt the criminals who fired the Bishop's palace, but it was the disappearance of the moral pressure by which in ordinary times public opinion keeps the criminals in restraint that rendered the crime possible. A similar phenomenon is to be observed in some parts of Russia, where the bandits of society pursue their depredations with the tacit approval of the law- page 24 abiding community, who welcome everything that embarrasses the Government. Writing upon a related subject, Lord Melbourne told the King:—

It is the public feeling which is dangerous, not the political unions. If these latter should adopt any of the measures mentioned in my former letter, such as the resistance of the payment of taxes, unless they are supported by a large proportion of the middle and even of the better classes of society, the attempt will be abortive and ridiculous. If they are so supported it is unnecessary to say how critical the state of affairs will become.—(Melbourne Papers, p. 134.)

That the middle and better classes of society sympathised with the demand for reform no one could doubt. Newspapers appeared in mourning, and the bells of the churches rang muffled peals. Everywhere men began organising themselves into political unions which, although not armed, could easily have developed into armed forces. Earl Grey wrote to Lord Melbourne, November 16th, 1831:—

I have been thinking a great deal about this Birmingham Union. The sort of organisation which is now proposed is not calculated for the discussion of public questions or for petitions upon them. It is of a military character, for active purposes, now alleged to be for the preservation of the public peace, but easily convertible to any other objects. Unarmed as a body, they, possess arms as individuals, and being previously formed into companies and regiments and divisions under the name of tithings, etc., they may at any moment appear as an armed and disciplined force. The danger of this I need not point out to you. The question is, how to deal with it. And I cannot help thinking that the proceeding, of which we are expecting an account from Birmingham, cannot be sanctioned by the law. You will, of course, bring under their notice the facility with which a body so organised, though not with arms in the first instance, may become an armed force.—(Melbourne Papers, p. 136.)

The other side took alarm. The Times and the Morning Post advocated the general enrolment and arming of all the respectable classes under the title of a National Guard. Lord Melbourne wrote begging Sir F. Burdett to take no part in the formation of the London and Westminster Political Union, and on his refusal all such associations were declared to be illegal.

Parliament, which had been prorogued on the 20th of October, reassembled on December 6th. Six days later Lord John Russell introduced the Reform Bill. The second reading was carried after two days' debate by a majority of 162. On March 22nd the Bill was sent up to the House of Lords. The Duke of Wellington stood firm, but the disintegrating influence of Royal pressure and Ministerial blandishment reinforced the grim and bloody arguments of the agitators in the country. The Thanes fled from him, and the second reading was carried by a majority of 9. Fifteen bishops voted against the Bill, but 12 voted for it.

It was, however, frankly admitted that the Bill had been spared on the second reading only in order that it might be mutilated in Committee.

By a majority of 35 the Tory Peers carried a motion to consider the enfranchising before the disenfranchising clauses of the Bill. They had been warned by the Government that such a decision would be accepted as a rejection of the measure. Undeterred by this ultimatum, they carried their amendment. As the King refused to create new peers, Lord Grey placed his resignation in the hands of the King, who at once sent for Wellington and Peel and asked them to form a Ministry. There was a hostile majority of 162 in the House of Commons. Nor was there the least chance of success if they appealed to the country. While they were deliberating, the people began to make ready the only argument which carried conviction to the Peers. If Nottingham and Bristol had not been sufficient there was plenty more to follow.

page 25

The cry rang through the country, "The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the the William IV. was hissed as ho passed through the streets, and the walls blazed with insulting lampoons and caricatures. Signboards which displayed the King's portrait were framed with crape, and Queen Adelaide's likeness was disfigured with lamp-black. Rumours of projected riots filled the town, and whispers of a plot of seizing the wives and children of the aristocracy led the authorities to order the swords of the Scots Greys to bo rough-sharpened—(Stuart Reid's "Russell," p. 83.)

Not before time were these swords rough-sharpened, but it is easier to sharpen a sword than to make sure that its wearer will draw it against the people. There is little doubt that if the Duke of Wellington had taken office he would have had to begin by dissolving Parliament and proclaiming martial law. He would then have had to face revolutionary risings without any troops upon whom he could depend. Mr. Spalding says:—

The consternation and resentment of the people were unbounded. Meetings were held everywhere to demand the recall of the Ministry; and resolutions were passed binding all present to refuse payment of taxes until the Reform Bill was passed into law. The Common Council prayed the House of Commons to refuse supplies; and the House of Commons, not to be behindhand in asserting the will of the people, adopted a humble address to the King, asking that he would "call to his councils such persons only as will carry into effect, unimpaired in all its essential provisions, that Bill for reforming the representation of the people which has recently passed this House." The people were prepared to support their words by actions. There is no doubt that if the crisis had been greatly prolonged insurrections would have broken out in all parts of the country; and it was oven reported that the army could not be trusted in such an event.

Birmingham stood ready to march on London. Mr. Thomas Attwood, with 150,000 men of the Midlands, talked considerably of what they were about to do, after the manner of Birmingham. Lord John Russell consoled them by a letter in which he told them, "Our prospects are obscured for a moment, but I trust only for a moment. It is impossible that the whisper of a faction should prevail against the voice of a nation."—("The House of Lords," p. 166.)

When it was clear that the Opposition dare not assume the responsibility of undertaking to carry on the King's Government, the King was compelled to recall Lord Grey. But Lord Grey would only take office on his own terms. The King had created sixteen peers before the second reading of the first Reform Bill, but he shrank from making as many new creations as would be necessary to break down the Tory majority in the House of Lords.

But while Majesty was deliberating, the People were getting altogether out of hand. One fine morning in May, when the citizens of London left their homes for business, they were startled by finding the whole town placarded with bills containing the imperious suggestion; "To stop the Duke: Go for Gold! "Great is the force of suggestion, and the effect multiplies with each repetition. At first only the more ardent reformers acted upon the advice. They exchanged their notes for gold, withdrew their deposits, and paraded the fact that they had done so. Soon other timid and prudent men followed their example. A run upon the banks set in which showed signs of developing into a veritable panic. "To stop the Duke: Go for Gold!" "To stop the Duke: Go for Gold! "In a few days the suggestion might have paralysed the whole vast machine of industry whose mainspring is credit.

"To stop the Duke: Go for Gold! "The King gave way. The Duke was stopped. Lord Grey was told he could make as many new peers as were necessary. The run upon the banks ceased. The crisis was at an end.

page 26
Before Lord Grey consented to resume office he received in writing the following assurance from the King:—

The King grants permission to Earl Grey and to his Chancellor, Lord Brougham, to create such a number of peers as will be sufficient to ensure the passing of the Reform Bill, first calling up peers' eldest sons.—William R., Windsor, May 17, 1832.

The next day the King wrote to Lord Grey as follows:—

His Majesty authorises Earl Grey, if any obstacle should arise, during the further progress of the Bill, to submit to him a creation of peers to such an extent as shall be necessary to enable him to carry the Bill, always bearing in mind that it has been, and still is, His Majesty's object to avoid any permanent increase to the peerage, and therefore that this addition to the House of Peers, should it unfortunately become necessary, shall comprehend as large a proportion of the eldest sons of peers and collateral heirs of childless peers as can possibly be brought forward.—William R.

At the same time the King sent to the Duke of Wellington, through Sir H. Taylor, his private secretary, a significant hint that the game was up. He wrote on May 17th:—

My dear Lord Duke,—I have received the King's commands to acquaint your Grace that all difficulties and obstacles to the arrangement in progress will be removed by a declaration in the House of Lords this day, from a sufficient number of peers, that, in consequence of the present state of things, they have come to the resolution of dropping their further opposition to the Reform Bill, so that it may pass, as nearly as possible, in its present form.

Should your Grace agree to this, as he hopes you will, His Majesty requests you will communicate on the subject with Lord Lyndhurst, Lord Ellenborough, and any other peers who may be disposed to concur with you.—I have, &c.H. Taylor.

The Tory peers took the hint: the Bill, which had never technically lapsed, was taken up, and passed through Committee, about one hundred of the peers absenting themselves from the House.

The Boyal Assent was given on June 7, 1832. The Duke of Wellington declared as the Bill passed its third reading in the Lords:—

Reform, my Lords, has triumphed, the barriers of the Constitution are broken down, the waters of destruction have burst the gates of the temple, and the tempest begins to howl. Who can say where its course should stop? Who can stay its speed?

The seventy-seven years which have passed since then have not justified the dismal forebodings of the Duke. "Speed" is about the last word that rises to the mind of the historian who is engaged in chronicling the pace of a Reform Movement which after nearly four-score years has left the power of the Peers still intact.

Such is the story of the remarkable crisis which inaugurated the era of democratic government in Great Britain. It was the supreme object-lesson, which has never been forgotten, as to the methods that had to be employed to overcome the insistance of the Lords to any measure of popular reform. The country must be thrown into a ferment, social order must be endangered, and the nation must be brought to the verge of civil war. Then, when political passion is culminating in revolutionary violence, the Sovereign can paralyse this resistance of the Peers by the threat to create as many peers as may be needed to convert the minority into a majority. But the pot must be almost boiling over before Majesty will consent to damp down the fire.

The lesson which the nation learned from the collapse of the opposition of the House of Lords to the demands of the people was that they could extort anything they pleased from the Peers by violence and the threat of violence, but that unless they could evoke a quasi-revolutionary agitation the House of Lords would treat them with contempt.

page 27

Mr. Gladstone, in 1893, tried to inculcate a different doctrine. When the Peers threw out the Home Rule Bill, he was so far from having taken to heart the lesson of 1832, that he even deprecated "vehemence as quite unnecessary." The passage of this remarkable speech relating to this subject is as follows:—" How are we to face the situation? Of course, not by a dream of illegality in any form. Nay, more, while we abhor violence, in such a case as this I would even dissuade vehemence, which is quite unnecessary. What we want is determination—calm, solid, quiet, but fixed determination."

To this it is sufficient to remark that if the Reformers of 1832 had been so abhorrent of violence and had never dreamt of illegality, the House of Lords would have defied the nation, and the enfranchisement of the people would have been adjourned to the Greek Kalends. What carried the Reform Bill was not "calm, solid, quiet, but fixed determination," but resolute, turbulent, tumultuous demonstrations of a savage resolution to resort to revolutionary methods, of which the sack of Bristol and the burning of Nottingham Castle were but premonitory foretastes.