Front Page Titles (by Subject) LORD ALTHORP AND THE REFORM ACT OF 1832. 1 (1877.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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LORD ALTHORP AND THE REFORM ACT OF 1832. 1 (1877.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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LORD ALTHORP AND THE REFORM ACT OF 1832.1
“Althorp carried the Bill,” such is the tradition of our fathers: “the Bill,” of course, being the Bill to them—the great Reform Act of 1832, which was like a little revolution in that generation—which really changed so much, and which seemed to change so much more. To have been mainly concerned in passing so great a measure seems to many of the survivors of that generation, who remember the struggles of their youth and recall the enthusiasm of that time, almost the acme of fame. And in sober history such men will always be respectfully and gravely mentioned; but all romance has died away. The Bill is to us hardly more than other Bills; it is one of a great many Acts of Parliament which in this day, partly for good and partly for evil, have altered the ever-varying Constitution of England. The special charm, the charm which to the last you may see that Macaulay always felt about it, is all gone. The very history of it is forgotten. Which of the younger generation can say what was General Gascoigne’s amendment, or who were the “waverers,” or even how many Reform “Bills” in those years there were? The events for which one generation cares most, are often those of which the next knows least. They are too old to be matters of personal recollection, and they are too new to be subjects of study: they have passed out of memory, and they have not got into the books. Of the well-informed young people about us, there are very many who scarcely know who Lord Althorp was.
And in another respect this biography has been unfortunate. It has been kept back too long. The Reform Act of 1867 has shed a painful light on the Reform Act of 1832, and has exhibited in real life what philosophers said were its characteristic defects. While these lingered in the books they were matters of dull teaching, and no one cared for them; but now Mr. Disraeli has embodied them, and they are living among us. The traditional sing-song of mere eulogy is broken by a sharp question. Those who study that time say, “Althorp, you tell us, passed the Bill. It was his frankness and his high character and the rest of his great qualities which did it. But was it good that he should have passed it? Would it not have been better if he had not possessed those fine qualities? Was not some higher solution possible! Knowing this bill by its fruits, largely good, but also largely evil, might we not have had a better Bill? At any rate, if it could not be so, show why it could not be so. Prove that the great defects in the Act of 1832 were necessary defects. Explain how it was that Althorp had no choice, and then we will admire him as you wish us.” But to this biographer—a man of that time, then in the House of Commons on the Whig side, and almost, as it were, on the skirts of the Bill—such questions would have seemed impossible. To him, the Act of 1832 is still wonderful and perfect—the great measure which we carried in my youth; and as for explaining defects in it, he would have as soon thought of explaining defects in a revelation.
But if ever Lord Althorp’s life is well written, it will, I think, go far to explain not only why the Reform Bill was carried, but why that Bill is what it was. He embodies all the characteristic virtues which enable Englishmen to effect well and easily great changes in politics: their essential fairness, their “large roundabout common-sense,” their courage, and their disposition rather to give up something than to take the uttermost farthing. But on the other hand also he has all the characteristic English defects: their want of intellectual and guiding principle, their even completer want of the culture which would give that principle, their absorption in the present difficulty, and their hand-to-mouth readiness to take what solves it without thinking of other consequences. And I am afraid the moral of those times is that these English qualities as a whole—merits and defects together—are better suited to an early age of politics than to a later. As long as materials are deficient, these qualities are most successful in hitting off simple expedients in adapting old things to new uses, and in extending ancient customs; they are fit for instantaneous little creations, and admirable at bit-by-bit growth. But when, by the incessant application of centuries, these qualities have created an accumulated mass of complex institutions, they are apt to fail, unless aided by others very different. The instantaneous origination of obvious expedients is of no use when the field is already covered with the heterogeneous growth of complex past expedients; bit-by-bit development is out of place unless you are sure which bit should, and which bit should not, be developed; the extension of customs may easily mislead when there are so many customs; no immense and involved subject can be set right except by faculties which can grasp what is immense and scrutinise what is involved. But mere common-sense is here matched with more than it can comprehend, like a schoolboy in the differential calculus;—and absorption in the present difficulty is an evil, not a good, for what is wanted is that you should be able to see many things at once, and take in their bearing, not fasten yourself on one thing. The characteristic danger of great nations, like the Romans, or the English, which have a long history of continuous creation, is that they may at last fail from not comprehending the great institutions which they have created.
No doubt it would be a great exaggeration to say that this calamity happened in its fulness in the year 1832, and it would be most unfair to Lord Althorp to cite him as a complete example of the characteristics which may cause it; but there was something in him of those qualities, and some trace in 1832 of that calamity—enough in those cases to be a warning. Only a complete history of the time can prove this; but perhaps in a few pages I may a little explain and illustrate it.
Let us first get, both as more instructive and as less tedious than analysis, a picture of a man as he stood in the principal event of his life. A good painter has thus painted him. Lord Jeffrey, the great Edinburgh Reviewer, who was an able lawyer and practical man of business in his day, though his criticism on poetry has not stood the test of time, was Lord Advocate in the Reform Ministry of 1830, and he is never tired of describing Lord Althorp. “There is something,” he writes, “to me quite delightful in his calm, clumsy, courageous, immutable probity, and it seems to have a charm for everybody.” “I went to Althorp,” he writes, “again, and had a characteristic scene with that most honest, frank, true, and stout-hearted of God’s creatures. He had not come downstairs, and I was led up to his dressing-room, with his arms (very rough and hairy) bare above the elbows, and his beard half shaved and half staring through the lather, with a desperate razor in one hand, and a great soap-brush in the other. He gave me the loose finger of his brush hand, and with the usual twinkle of his bright eye and radiant smile, he said, ‘You need not be anxious about your Scotch Bills to-night, for we are no longer his Majesty’s Ministers’.” And soon after he writes again, at a later stage of the ministerial crisis, “When they came to summon Lord Althorp to a council on the duke’s giving in, he was found in a shed with a groom, busy oiling the locks of his fowling-pieces, and lamenting the decay into which they had fallen during his Ministry”. And on another occasion he adds what may serve as an intellectual accompaniment to these descriptions: “Althorp, with his usual frankness, gave us a pretended confession of his political faith, and a sort of creed of his political morality, and showed that though it was a very shocking doctrine to promulgate, he must say that he had never sacrificed his own inclinations to a sense of duty without repenting it, and always found himself more substantially unhappy for having employed himself for the public good”. And some one else at the time said, “The Government cannot be going out, for Althorp looks so very dismal”. He was made (as we learn from this volume) a principal Minister, contrary to his expectation and in opposition to his wish. He was always wanting to resign; he was always uncomfortable, if not wretched; and the instant he could do so, he abandoned politics, and would never touch them again, though he lived for many years. And this, though in appearance he was most successful, and was almost idolised by his followers and friends.
At first this seems an exception to one of Nature’s most usual rules. Almost always, if she gives a great faculty she gives also an enjoyment in the use of it. But here Nature had given a remarkable power of ruling and influencing men—one of the most remarkable (good observers seem to say) given to any Englishman of that generation; and yet the possessor did not like, but, on the contrary, much disliked to use it. The explanation, however, is, that not only had Nature bestowed on Lord Althorp this happy and great gift of directing and guiding men, but, as if by some subtle compensation, had added what was, under the circumstances, a great pain to it. She had given him a most sluggish intellect—only moving with effort, and almost with suffering—generally moving clumsily, and usually following, not suggesting. If you put a man with a mind like this—especially a sensitive, conscientious man such as Lord Althorp was—to guide men quickly through complex problems of legislation and involved matters of science, no wonder that he will be restive and wish to give up. No doubt the multitude wish to follow him; but where is he to tell the multitude to go? His mind suggests nothing, and there is a pain and puzzle in his brain.
Fortune and education had combined in Lord Althorp’s case to develop his defects. His father and mother were both persons of great cultivation, but they were also busy people of the world, and so they left their son to pick up his education as he could. A Swiss footman, who did not know English very well, taught him to read, and “was his sole instructor and most intimate associate till he went to Harrow”. His father, too, being a great fox-hunter, the son, as a young boy, clearly cared more for, and was more occupied with, hounds and animals, than anything else; and he lived mainly with servants and people also so occupied, from which, as might be expected, he contracted a shyness and awkwardness which stayed with him through life. When he went to Harrow, the previous deficiencies of his education were, of course, against him, and he seems to have shown no particular disposition to repair them. As far as can now be learnt, he was an ordinary strong-headed and strong-willed English boy, equal to necessary lessons, but not caring for them, and only distinguished from the rest by a certain suppressed sensibility and tenderness, which he also retained in after years, which softened a manliness that would otherwise have been rugged, and which saved him from being unrefined.
At Cambridge his mother, as it appears, suddenly, and for the first time, took an interest in his studies, and told him she should expect him to be high at his first college examination. And this seems to have awakened him to industry. The examination was in mathematics, which suited him much better than the Harrow classics, and he really came out high in it. The second year it was the same, though he had good competitors. But there his studies ended. His being a nobleman at that time excluded him from the university examinations, and he was far too apathetic to work at mathematics, except for something of the sort. and his tutor seems to have discouraged his doing so. Then, as since, the bane of Cambridge has been a certain incomplete and rather mean way of treating great studies, which teaches implicitly, if not plainly, that it is as absurd to learn the differential calculus in and for itself as it would be to keep a ledger for its own sake. On such a mind as Lord Althorp’s, which required as much as possible to be awakened and kept awake to the interest of high studies, no external surroundings could have been more fatal. He threw up his reading and took to hounds, betting, and Newmarket, and to all which was then, even if not since, thought to be most natural, if not most proper, in a young nobleman.
As far as classical studies are concerned he probably lost nothing. He was through life very opaque to literary interests, and in his letters and speeches always used language in the clumsiest way. But he had—perhaps from his childish field-sports—a keen taste for animals and natural history, which nowadays would have been developed into a serious pursuit. And as it was, he had an odd craving for figures, which might have been made something of in mathematics. “He kept,” we are told, “an account of every shot he fired in the course of a year, whether he missed or killed, and made up the book periodically.” He would not pass the accounts of the Agricultural Society without hunting for a missing threepence; and when Chancellor of the Exchequer, he used, it is said, “to do all his calculations, however complicated, alone in his closet,” which his biographer thinks very admirable, and contrasts with the habit of Mr. Pitt, “who used to take a Treasury clerk into his confidence,” but which was really very absurd. It is not by such mechanical work that great Budgets are framed; and a great Minister ought to know what not to do himself, and how to use, for everything possible, the minds of others. Still there is much straightforward strength in this, if also some comic dulness.
If Lord Althorp’s relatives did not give him a very good education, they did not make up for it by teaching him light accomplishments. They sent him the “grand tour,” as it was then called; but he was shy and awkward, seems to have had no previous preparation for foreign society, would not go into it, and returned boasting that he could not speak French. His mother—a woman of great fashion and high culture—must have sighed very much over so uncourtly and so “English” an eldest son.
Then, in the easy way of those times—it was in 1804—he was brought into Parliament for Okehampton, a nomination borough, some “Mr. Strange,” a barrister, retiring in his favour, and his interest being strong, he was made a Lord of the Treasury. But the same apathy to intellectual interests which showed itself at college clung to him here also. He showed energy, but it was not the energy of a man of business. He passed, we are told, “the greatest part of his time in the country, and when he attended at the Treasury, which was very rarely, and only on particular occasions to make up a Board, he returned home immediately afterwards. Indeed, he used to have horses posted on the road from London to Althorp, and often rode down at night, as soon as the House had risen, in order that he might hunt with the Pytchley the next morning.” “On these occasions,” says another account, “he had no sleep, and often the hacks which he rode would fall down on the road.” And years afterwards the old clerks at the office used to tell of the rarity and brevity of his visits to the department, and of the difficulty of getting him to stay;—all which shows force and character, but still not the sort of character which would fit a man to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. But though he had much of the want of culture, Lord Althorp had none of the unfeelingness which also the modern world is getting somehow to attach to the character of the systematic sportsman. On the contrary, he was one of the many instances which prove that this character may be combined with an extreme sensibility to the suffering of animals and man. He belonged to the class of men in whom such feelings are far keener than usual, and his inner character approached to the “Arnold type,” “for to hear of cruelty or injustice pained him” almost “like a blow”.
He, it seems, kept a hunting journal, which tells how his hounds found a fox at Parson’s Hill, and “ran over old Naseby field to Althorp in fifty minutes, and then, after a slight check, over the finest part of Leicestershire”; and all that sort of thing. But probably it does not tell one the very natural consequence which happened to him from such a life. Being a somewhat uncouth person, addicted to dogs and horses—a “man’s man,” as Thackeray used to call it—he did not probably go much into ladies’ society, and was not very aggressive when he was there. But men who do not make advances to women are apt to become victims to women who make advances to them; and so it was with Lord Althorp. He married a Miss Acklom, a “Diana Vernon” sort of person, “rather stout, and without pretension to regular beauty”; but nevertheless, it is said, “with something prepossessing about her—clever, well-read, with a quick insight into the character of others, and with much self-dependence”. And this self-dependence and thought she showed to her great advantage in the principal affair of her life. Lord Althorp’s biographer is sure, but does not say how, that the first declaration of love was made by the lady; he was, it seems, too shy to think of such a thing. As a rule, marriages in which a young nobleman is actively captured by an aggressive lady are not domestically happy, though they may be socially useful, but in this case the happiness seems to have been exceptionally great; and when she died, after a few years, he suffered a very unusual grief. “He went,” we are told, “at once to Winton, the place where he had lived with her, and passed several months in complete retirement, finding his chief occupation in reading the Bible,” in which he found, at first, many grave difficulties, such as the mention of the constellation “Orion” by the prophet Amos, and the high place (an equality with Job and David) given by Ezekiel to the prophet Daniel when still a young man, “and before he had proved himself to be a man of so great a calibre as he certainly did afterwards”. On these questions, he adds, “I have consulted a Mr. Shepherd, the clergyman here, but his answers are not satisfactory”. Happily, however, such a man is not at the mercy of clergymen’s answers, nor dependent on the petty details of ancient prophets. The same sensibility which made him keenly alive to justice and injustice in things of this world, went further, and told him of a moral government in things not of this world. No man of or near the Arnold species was ever a sceptic as to, far less an unbeliever in, ultimate religion. New philosophies are not wanted or appreciated by such men, nor are book-arguments of any real use, though these men often plod over them as if they were; for in truth an inner teaching supersedes everything, and for good or evil closes the controversy; no discussion is of any effect or force; the court of appeal, fixed by nature in such minds, is peremptory in belief, and will not hear of any doubt. And so it was in this case. Through life Lord Althorp continued to be a man strong, though perhaps a little crude, in religious belief; and thus gained at the back of his mind a solid seriousness which went well with all the rest of it. And his grief for his wife was almost equally durable. He gave up not only society, which perhaps was no great trial, but also hunting—not because he believed it to be wrong, but because he did not think it seemly or suitable that a man after such a loss should be so very happy as he knew that hunting would make him.
Soon after his marriage he had begun to take an interest in politics, especially on their moral side, and of course the increased seriousness of his character greatly augmented it. Without this change, though he might have thought himself likely to be occasionally useful in outlying political questions, probably he would have had no grave political career, and his life never would have been written. But the sort of interest which he took in politics requires some explanation, for though his time was not very long ago, the change of feeling since then is vast.
“If any person,” said Sir Samuel Romilly, the best of judges, for he lived through the times and was mixed up, heart and soul, in the matters he speaks of, “if any person be desirous of having an adequate idea of the mischievous effects which have been produced in this country by the French Revolution and all its attendant horrors, he should attempt some reforms on humane and liberal principles. He will then find not only what a stupid spirit of conservation, but what a savage spirit, it has infused into the minds of his countrymen.” And very naturally, for nothing is so cruel as fear. A whole generation in England, and indeed in Europe, was so frightened by the Reign of Terror, that they thought it could only be prevented by another Reign of Terror. The Holy Alliances, as they were then called, meant this and worked for this. Though we had not in name such an alliance in England, we had a state of opinion which did the work of one without one. Nine-tenths of the English people were above all things determined to put down “French principles”; and unhappily “French principles” included what we should all now consider obvious improvements and rational reforms. They would not allow the most cruel penal code which any nation ever had to be mitigated; they did not wish justice to be questioned; they would not let the mass of the people be educated, or at least only so that it came to nothing; they would not alter anything which came down from their ancestors, for in their terror they did not know but there might be some charmed value even in the most insignificant thing; and after what they had seen happen in France, they feared that if they changed a single iota all else would collapse.
Upon this generation, too, came the war passion. They waged, and in the main—though with many errors—waged with power and spirit, the war with Napoleon; and they connected this with their horror of liberal principles in a way which is now very strange to us, but which was very powerful then. We know now that Napoleon was the head of a conservative reaction, a bitter and unfeeling reaction, just like that of the contemporary English; but the contemporary English did not know this. To the masses of them he was Robespierre à cheval, as some one called him—a sort of Jacobin waging war, in some occult way, for liberty and revolution, though he called himself Emperor. Of course, the educated few gradually got more or less to know that Napoleon hated Jacobins and revolution, and liberty too, as much as it is possible to hate them; but the ordinary multitude, up to the end of the struggle never dreamed of it. Thus, in an odd way, the war passion of the time strengthened its conservative feeling; and in a much more usual way it did so too, for it absorbed men’s minds in the story of battles and the glory of victories, and left no unoccupied thought for gradual improvement and dull reform at home. A war time, also, is naturally a harsh time; for the tale of conflicts which sometimes raises men from pain, also tends to make men indifferent to it: the familiarity of the idea ennobles but also hardens.
This savageness of spirit was the more important because, from deep and powerful economical agencies, there was an incessant distress running through society, sometimes less and sometimes more, but always, as we should now reckon, very great. The greatest cause of this was that we were carrying on, or trying to carry on, a system of Free Trade under a restrictive tariff: we would not take foreign products, and yet we wished to sell foreigners ours. And our home market was incessantly disordered. First the war, and then the corn-laws, confined us chiefly to our own soil for our food; but that soil was of course liable to fail in particular years, and then the price of food rose rapidly, which threw all other markets into confusion—for people must live first, and can only spend the surplus, after paying the cost of living, upon anything else. The fluctuations in the demand for our manufactures at home were ruinously great, though we were doing all we could to keep them out of foreign markets, and the combined effect was terrible. And the next great cause was that we were daily extending an unprecedented system of credit without providing a basis for it, and without knowing how to manage it. There was no clear notion that credit, being a promise to pay cash, must be supported by proportionate reserves of cash held in store; and that as bullion is the international cash, all international credit must be sustained by a store of bullion. In consequence, all changes for the worse in trade, whether brought on by law or nature, caused a destruction of confidence, and diffused an uneasy moral feeling which made them far worse than they would have been otherwise. The immense fluctuations in our commerce, caused by Protection, were aggravated by immense fluctuations in our credit, and the combined result was unspeakably disastrous.
During the French war these causes were not so much felt. Trade was better, because we were creating a foreign market for ourselves. Just as lately, by lending to a miscellaneous mass of foreign countries, we enabled those countries to buy of us, so in the great war, by large subsidies and huge foreign expenditure, we created a “purchasing power” which was ultimately settled by our manufactures. We had nothing else to settle it with; if we did not send them direct, we must use them to buy the bullion, or whatever else it might be which we did send indirectly. This “war demand,” of which so much is said in the economical literature of those years, of course ceased at the peace; and as we declined to take foreign products in exchange for ours, no substitute for it could be found, and trade languished in consequence. Agriculture, too, was worse after the peace, for the natural protection given by the war was far more effective than the artificial protection given by the corn-laws. The war kept out corn almost equally whatever was the price, but the corn-laws were based on the “sliding scale,” which let in the corn when it became dear. Our farmers, therefore, were encouraged to grow more corn than was enough for the country in good years, which they could not sell; and they did not get a full price in bad years, for the foreign corn came in more and more as the price rose and rose. Though the protection availed to hurt the manufacturer, it was not effectual in helping the farmer. And the constant adversity of other interests, by a reflex action, also hurt him. Committees on agricultural distress, and motions as to the relief of trading distress, alternate in the Parliamentary debates of those years. Our credit system, too, was in greater momentary danger after the peace than before; for during the war it was aided by a currency of inconvertible paper, which absolved us from the necessity of paying our promises in solid cash, though at very heavy cost in other ways, both at the instant and afterwards.
These fluctuations in trade and agriculture of course told on the condition of the working classes. They were constantly suffering, and then the “savage spirit” of which Sir Samuel has spoken showed itself at its worst. Suffering, as usual, caused complaint, and this complaint was called sedition. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, harsh laws were passed, and a harsher administration incited to put it down. It could not be put down. It incessantly smouldered and incessantly broke out, and for years England was filled with the fear of violence, first by the breakers of the law and then by the enforcers of it.
Resistance to such a policy as this was most congenial to a nature half unhinged by misfortune, and always in itself most sensitive and opposed to injustice. Even before his wife’s death, Lord Althorp had begun to exert himself against it, and afterwards he threw the whole vigour not only of his mind but of his body into it. So far from running away perpetually to hunt, as in old times, he was so constant in his attendance in Parliament that tradition says hardly any one, except the clerks at the table, was more constantly to be seen there. He opposed all the Acts by which the Tory Government of the day tried to put down disaffection instead of curing it, and his manly energy soon made him a sort of power in Parliament. He was always there, always saying what was clear, strong, and manly; and therefore the loosely-knit Opposition of that day was often guided by him; and the Ministers, though strong in numerical majority, feared him, for he said things that the best of that majority understood in a rugged English way, which changed feelings, even if it did not alter votes. He was a man whom every one in the House respected, and who therefore spoke to prepossessed hearers. No doubt, too, the peculiar tinge which grief had given to his character added to his influence. He took no share in the pleasures of other men. Though a nobleman of the highest place, still young, as we should now reckon (he was only thirty-six when Lady Althorp died), he stood aloof from society, which courted him, and lived for public business only; and therefore he had great weight in it, for the English very much value obviously conscientious service, and the sobered fox-hunter was a somewhat interesting character.
He had not indeed any clear ideas of the cause of the difficulties of the time, or of the remedies for them. He did no doubt attend much to economical questions; and his taste for figures, shown before in calculating the ratio of his good shots to his bad, made statistical tables even pleasing to him. His strong sense, though without culture and without originality, struggled dimly and sluggishly with the necessary problems. But considering that he lived in the days of Huskisson and Ricardo, his commercial ideas are crude and heavy. He got as far as the notion that the substitution of direct taxes for the bad tariff of those days would be “a good measure”; but when he came to apply the principle he failed from inability to work it out. Nor did years of discussion effectually teach him. In his great Budget of 1832—the first which the Whigs had made for many years, and at which therefore every one looked with unusual expectation—he proposed to take off a duty on tobacco and to replace it by a tax on the transfer of real and funded property, together with a tax on the import of raw cotton; and it was the necessity of having to withdraw the larger part of this plan, that more than anything else first gave the Whigs that character for financial incapacity which clung to them so long. A crude good sense goes no way in such problems, and it is useless to apply it to them. The other economical problem of the time, how to lay a satisfactory basis for our credit, Lord Althorp was still less able to solve, and excusably so; for the experience which has since taught us so much did not exist, and the best theories then known were very imperfect. The whole subject was then encumbered with what was called the “currency question,” and on this Lord Althorp’s views were fairly sensible, but no more.
I have said what may seem too much of the distresses of the country fifty or sixty years ago, not only because the mode in which he dealt with them is the best possible illustration of Lord Althorp’s character, but also because some knowledge of them is necessary to an understanding of “Parliamentary reform,” as it was in his time, on account of which alone any one now cares for him. The “bill,” if I may say so, for these miseries of the country was sent in to the old system of Parliamentary representation; and very naturally. The defenders of that system of necessity conceded that it was anomalous, complex, and such as it would have been impossible to set up de novo. But they argued that it was practically successful, worked well, and promoted the happiness of the people better than any other probably would. And to this the inevitable rejoinder at the time was: “The system does not work well; the country is not happy; if your system is as you say to be judged by its fruits, that system is a bad system, for its fruits are bad, and the consequences everywhere to be seen in the misery around us”. Upon many English minds which would have cared nothing for an argument of theoretical completeness, this “practical” way of arguing, as it was called, pressed with irresistible strength.
The unpopularity was greater because a new generation was growing up with other “thoughts” and other “minds” than that which had preceded it. Between 1828 and 1830 a new race came to influence public affairs, who did not remember the horrors of the French Revolution, and who had been teased to death by hearing their parents talk about them. The harsh and cruel spirit which those horrors had awakened in their contemporaries became itself, by the natural law of reaction, an object of disgust and almost of horror to the next generation. When it was said that the old structure of Parliament worked well, this new race looked not only at the evident evils amid which they lived, but at the oppressive laws and administrations by which their fathers had tried to cure those evils; and they “debited” both to the account of the old Parliament. It was made responsible for the mistaken treatment as well as for the deep-rooted disease, and so the gravest clouds hang over it.
The Duke of Wellington, too (the most unsuccessful of premiers as well as the most successful of generals), broke the Tory party—the natural party to support this system—into fragments. With a wise renunciation both of his old principles and of his fixed prejudices, he had granted “Catholic Emancipation,” and so offended the older and stricter part of his followers. They accused him of treachery, and hated him with a hatred of which in this quiet age, when political passion is feeble, we can hardly form an idea. And he then quarrelled, also, with the best of the moderate Right—Mr. Huskisson and the Canningites. He had disliked Mr. Canning personally when alive, he hated still more the liberal principles which he had begun to introduce into our foreign policy, and he was an eager, despotic man, who disliked difference of opinion; so just when he had broken with the most irrational section of his party, he broke with its most rational members too, and left himself very weak. No one so much, though without meaning it, aided the cause of Parliamentary change, for he divided and enfeebled the supporters of the old system; he took away the question of Catholic Emancipation which before filled the public mind; and he intensified the unpopularity of all he touched by the idea of a “military premier,” for which we should not care now, but which was odious and terrible then, when men still feared oppression from the Government.
Upon minds thus predisposed, the French Revolution of 1830 broke with magical power. To the young generation it seemed like the fulfilment of their dreams,
and there came upon them eager thoughts that they might still be
And even to soberer persons this new revolution seemed to prove that change, even great change, was not so mischievous as had been said—that the good of 1789 might be gained without the evil, and that it was absurd not to try reform when the unreformed world contained so much which was miserable and so much which was difficult to bear. Even a strong Tory Ministry might have been overthrown, so great was the force of this sudden sentiment; the feeble Ministry of the Duke of Wellington fell at once before it, and the Whigs were called to power.
Their first act was to frame a plan of Parliamentary reform, and that which they constructed was many times larger than anything which any one expected from them. All those who remember those times say that when they heard what was proposed they could hardly believe their ears. And when it was explained to the House of Commons, the confusion, the perplexity, and the consternation were very great. Reform naturally was much less popular in the assembly to be reformed than it was elsewhere. The general opinion was that if Sir Robert Peel had risen at once and denounced the Bill as destructive and revolutionary he might have prevented its being brought in. Another common opinion in the House was that the “Whigs would go out next morning”. But the Bill had been framed by one who, with whatever other shortcomings and defects, has ever had a shrewd eye for the probable course of public opinion “I told Lord Grey,” says Lord Russell, “that none but a large measure would be a safe measure.” And accordingly, as soon as its provisions came to be comprehended by the country, there was perhaps the greatest burst of enthusiasm which England has ever seen (certainly the greatest enthusiasm for a law, though that for a favourite person may sometimes have risen as high or higher). A later satirist has spoken of it as the “Great Bill for giving everybody everything,” and everybody almost seems to have been as much in favour of it as if they were to gain everything by it. Agricultural counties were as eager as manufacturing towns; men who had always been Tories before were as warm as Liberals. The country would have “the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill”.
But this enthusiasm did not of itself secure the passing of the Bill. There were many obstacles in the way which it took months to overcome, and which often made many despair. First, the Bill was not one of which the political world itself strongly approved; on the contrary, if left to itself, that world would probably have altogether rejected it. It was imposed by the uninitiated on the initiated, by the many on the few; and inevitably those who were compelled to take it did not like it. Then, the vast proposals of the Ministry deeply affected many private interests. In 1858 I heard an able politician say, “The best way for a Government to turn itself out is to bring in a Reform Bill; the number of persons whom every such bill must offend is very great, and they are sure to combine together, not on Reform, but on something else, and so turn out the Government”. And if there was serious danger to a Ministry which ventured to propose such petty reforms as were thought of in 1858, we can imagine the magnitude of the danger which the Ministry of 1832 incurred from the great measure they then brought in. One member, indeed, rose and said, “I am the proprietor of Ludgershall, I am the member for Ludgershall, I am the constituency of Ludgershall, and in all three capacities I assent to the disfranchisement of Ludgershall”. But the number of persons who were so disinterested was small. The Bill of 1832 affected the franchise of every constituency, and, therefore, the seat of every member; it abolished the seats of many, and destroyed the right of nomination to seats also possessed by many; and nothing could be more repugnant to the inclinations of most. A House of Commons with such a Bill before it was inevitably captious, unruly, and difficult to guide. And even if there had been or could have been a House of Commons which at heart liked the Bill, there would still have been the difficulty that many other people then most influential did not much like it. A great many members of the Cabinet which proposed it, though they believed it to be necessary, did not think it to be desirable. The country would have some such measure, and therefore they proposed this. “Lord Palmerston and Mr. Grant,” says Lord Russell, “had followed Mr. Canning in his opposition to Parliamentary Reform. Lord Lansdowne and Lord Holland had never been very eager on the subject.” Lord Brougham did not approve of the disfranchisement of nearly so many boroughs, and others of the Cabinet were much of the same mind. Their opinion was always dubious, their action often reluctant, and, according to Mr. Greville, some of the most influential of them, being very sensitive to the public opinion of select political society, were soon “heartily ashamed of the whole thing”.
The House of Lords, too, was adverse, not only as an assembly of men mostly rich and past middle age is ever adverse to great political change, or as a privileged assembly is always hostile to any movement which may destroy it, but for a reason peculiar to itself. The English House of Lords, as we all know, is not a rigid body of fixed number like the upper chambers of book constitutions, but an elastic body of unfixed number. The Crown can add to its members when it pleases and as it pleases. And in various ways which I need not enumerate now, this elasticity of structure has been of much use, but in one way it does much harm. The Crown for this purpose means the Ministry; the Ministry is appointed by a party, and is the agent of that party, and therefore it makes peers from its own friends all but exclusively. Under a Tory Government more than nine-tenths of the new peers will be Tory; under a Whig Government more than nine-tenths will be Whig; and if for a long course of years either party has been continuously, or nearly so, in power, the House of Lords will be filled with new members belonging to it. And this is a serious inconvenience, because the longer any party has been thus in power, the more likely it is to have to go out and lose power; and the new Ministry which comes in, and the new mode of thought which that Ministry embodies, finds itself face to face with a House of Peers embodying an antagonistic mode of thought, and one formed by its enemies. In 1831 this was so; for the Tories had been in office almost without a break since 1784, had created peers profusely, who were all Tories, and added the Irish elective peers, who, from the mode of election, were all Tories too. In consequence, the reform movement of 1831 and 1832 found itself obstinately opposed to a hostile House of Lords, whose antagonism aided the reluctance diffused through the House of Commons, and fostered the faintheartedness common in the Cabinet. The King, too, who had begun by being much in favour of reform, gradually grew frightened. His correspondence with Lord Grey gives a vivid picture of a well-meaning, but irresolute man, who is much in the power of the last speaker, who at last can be securely relied on by no one, and who gives incessant (and as it seems unnecessary) trouble to those about him. The rising republicanism of the day will find in these letters much to serve it; for, however convinced one may be, on general grounds, that English royalty was necessary to English freedom at that time, it is impossible not to be impatient at seeing how, month after month in a great crisis, when there was so much else to cause anxiety and create confusion, one stupid old man should have been able to add so much to both.
And all through the struggle the two effects of the new French Revolution were contending with one another. Just as it aroused in young and sanguine minds (and the majority of the country was just then disposed to be sanguine) the warmest hopes, in minds oppositely predisposed it aroused every kind of fear. Old and timid people thought we should soon have in England “Robespierre and the guillotine”. Indeed, in a way that is rather amusing now to consider, the French horrors of 1793 are turned into a kind of intellectual shuttlecock by two disputants. One says, “See what comes of making rash changes, how many crimes they engender, and how many lives they lose!” “No,” replies the other; “see what comes of not making changes till too late, for it was delay of change, and resistance to change, which caused those crimes and horrors.” Nor were these unreal words of mere rhetoric. They told much on many minds; for what France had done and would do then naturally filled an immense space in men’s attention, as for so many years not long since, Europe had been divided into France and anti-France.
With all these obstacles in its way, the Ministry of 1831 had the greatest difficulty in carrying the Reform Bill. I have not space to narrate, even in the briefest way, the troubled history of their doing so. Parliamentary debates are generally dull in the narration; but so great was the excitement, and so many were the relieving circumstances, that an accomplished historian will be able to make posterity take some sort of exceptional interest in these. The credit of the victory, such as it is, must be divided between many persons. Lord Grey managed the King, and stood first in the eye of the country; Lord Russel contributed the first sketch of the Bill, containing all its essential features, both good and bad, and he introduced the first Bill into the House of Commons; the late Lord Derby then first showed his powers as a great debater. But the best observers say that Lord Althorp carried the Bill: he was leader of the House at the time, and the main strain of ruling one of the most troubled of Parliaments was on him. His biographer, Sir Denis Le Marchant, who was present at the debates, says:—
“Lord Althorp’s capacity as a leader had been severely tested throughout this tremendous struggle, and it extorted the praise even of his political opponents. I recollect Sir Henry Hardinge saying, ‘It was Althorp carried the Bill. His fine temper did it. And in answer to a most able and argumentative speech of Crocker, he rose and merely said that “he had made some calculations which he considered as entirely conclusive in refutation of the right honourable gentleman’s arguments which he had mislaid, but if the House would be guided by his advice they would reject the amendment,”—which they accordingly did. There is no standing against such influence as this.’ The Whigs ascribed Lord Althorp’s influence not to his temper alone, but to the confidence felt by the House in his integrity and sound judgment, an opinion so universal that Lord Grey was induced by it to press upon him a peerage, that he might take charge of the Bill in the committee of the Lords; and the design was abandoned not from any hesitation or unwillingness on the part of Lord Althorp, but from the difficulty of finding a successor to him in the Commons.”1
So bad a speaker, with so slow a mind, has never received so great a compliment in a scene where quickness and oratory seem at first sight to be the most absolutely requisite of qualities. But it is no doubt a great mistake to imagine that these qualities are the true essentials to success of this kind. A very shrewd living judge says, after careful reflection, that they are even hurtful. “A man,” says Mr. Massey in his history, “who speaks seldom, and who speaks ill, is the best leader of the House of Commons.” And no doubt the slow-speeched English gentleman rather sympathises with slow speech in others. Besides, a quick and brilliant leader is apt to be always speaking, whereas a leader should interfere only when necessary, and be therefore felt as a higher force when he does so. His mind ought to be like a reserve fund—not invested in showy securities, but sure to be come at when wanted, and always of staple value. And this Lord Althorp’s mind was; there was not an epigram in the whole of it; everything was solid and ordinary. Men seem to have trusted him much as they trust a faithful animal, entirely believing that he would not deceive if he could, and that he could not if he would.
But what, then, was this great “Bill”—which it was so great an achievement to pass? Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer shortly. The “Bill” destroyed many old things and altered many old things, and we cannot understand its effects except in so far as we know what these old things were.
“A variety of rights of suffrage,” said Sir James Mackintosh, “is the principle of the English representation.” How that variety began is not at all to the present purpose; it grew as all English things grow—by day-by-day alterations from small beginnings; and the final product was very different from the first beginning, as well as from any design which ever at any one time entered any one’s mind. There always was a great contrast between the mode of representation in boroughs and in counties, because there was a great contrast in social structure between them. The “knight of the shire” was differently chosen from the “burgess of the town,” because the “shire” was a different sort of place from the “town” and the same people could not have chosen for the two—the same people not existing in the two. The borough representations of England, too, “struggled up”—there is hardly any other word to describe it—in a most irregular manner. The number of towns which sent representatives is scarcely ever the same in any two of our oldest Parliaments. The sheriff had a certain discretion, for the writ only told him to convene “de quolibet burgo duos burgenses,” and did not name any towns in particular. Most towns then disliked the duty and evaded it, if possible, which seems to have augmented the sheriff’s power, for he could permit or prevent the evasion as much as he chose. And at a very early period great differences grew up between the ways of election in the towns which were always represented. There seems to have been a kind of “natural selection”; the most powerful class in each borough chose if it could at each election, and if any class long continued the most powerful, it then acquired customary rights of election which came to be unalterable. Nor was there any good deciding authority to regulate this confusion. The judge of elections was the “House of Commons” itself, and it often decided not according to law or evidence, but as political or personal influence dictated. And rights of election thus capriciously recognised became binding on the borough for ever. As might be expected, the total result was excessively miscellaneous. The following are the franchises of the boroughs in two counties as legislators of 1832 found them.
Nothing could be more certain than that a system which was constructed in this manner must sooner or later need great alteration. Institutions which have grown from the beginning by adaptation may last as long as any, if they continue to possess the power of adaptation. The force which created them still exists to preserve them. But in this case the power of adaptation was gone. A system of representation made without design was fixed as eternal upon a changing nation, and somehow or other it was sure to become unsuitable. Nothing could be more false in essence than the old anti-reform arguments as far as they affected the “wisdom of our ancestors”; for the characteristic method of our ancestors had been departed from. Our ancestors changed what they wanted bit by bit, just when and just as they wanted. But their descendants were forbidden to do so; they were asked to be content not only with old clothes, but with much-patched old clothes, which they were denied the power to patch again. And this sooner or later they were sure to refuse.
In 1832 a grave necessity existed for changing it. The rude principle of natural selection by which it had been made, ensured that, at least approximately, the classes most influential in the nation would have a proportionate power in the legislation; no great class was likely to be denied anything approaching to its just weight. But now that a system framed in one age was to be made to continue unchanged through after ages, there was no such security. On the contrary, the longer the system went on without change the more sure it was to need change. Some new class was sure in course of time to grow up for which the fixed system provided no adequate representatives; and the longer that system continued fixed, the surer was this to happen, and the stronger was it likely that this class would be. In 1832, such a class had arisen of the first magnitude. The trading wealth of the country had created a new world which had no voice in Parliament comparable to that which it had in the country. Not only were some of the greatest towns, like Birmingham and Manchester, left without any members at all, but in most other towns the best of the middle class felt that they had no adequate power: they were either extinguished by a franchise too exclusive, or swamped by one too diffused; either way, they were powerless.
There was equal reason to believe that, by the same inevitable course of events, some class would come to have more power in Parliament than it should. The influence which gave the various classes their authority at the time in which the machinery of our representation was framed, would be sure in time to ebb away, wholly or in part, from some of them. And in matter of fact they did so. The richer nobility and the richer commoners had come to have much more power than they ought. The process of letting the most influential people in a borough choose its members, amounted in time to letting the great nobleman or great commoner to whom the property of the town belonged, choose them. And many counties had fallen into the direction of the same hands also, so that it was calculated, if not with truth, at any rate with an approach to it, that one hundred and seventy-seven lords and gentlemen chose as many as three hundred and fifty-five English members of Parliament. The Parliamentary power of these few rich peers and squires was much too great when compared with their share in the life of the nation, just as that of the trading class was too weak; the excess of the one made the deficiency of the other additionally difficult to bear; and the contrast was more than ever galling in the years from 1830 to 1832, because just then the new French Revolution had revived the feud between the privileged classes and the non-privileged. The excessive Parliamentary power of these few persons had before been a yoke daily becoming heavier and heavier, and now it could be endured no longer.
The “Reform Bill” amended all this. It abolished a multitude of nomination boroughs, gave members to large towns and cities, and changed the franchise, so that in all boroughs, at any rate, the middle classes obtained predominant power. And no one can deny that the good so done was immense; indeed, no one does now deny it, for the generation of Tories that did so has passed away. No doubt the Reform Act did not produce of itself at once the new heaven and new earth which its more ardent supporters expected of it. It did nothing to remove the worst evils from which the country suffered, for those evils were not political but economical; and the classes whom it enfranchised were not more economically instructed than those whom they superseded. The doctrine of Protection then reigned all through the nation, and while it did so no real cure for those evils was possible. But this Act, coming as it did when a new political generation was prepared to make use of it, got rid entirely of the “cruel spirit” by which our distresses had been repressed before, and which was as great an evil as those distresses themselves, introduced many improvements—municipal reform, tithe reform, and such like—in which the business-like habit of mind due to the greater power of the working classes mainly helped and diffused a sweeter and better spirit through society.
But these benefits were purchased at a price of the first magnitude, though, from the nature of it, its payment was long deferred. The reformers of 1832 dealt with the evils of their time, as they would have said, in an English way, and without much thinking of anything else. And exactly in that English way, as they had under their hands a most curious political machine which had grown without design, and which produced many very valuable, though not very visible effects they, without thought, injured and destroyed some of the best parts of it.
First, the old system of representation, as we have seen, was based on a variety of franchises. But, in order to augment the influence of the middle class, the reformers of 1832 destroyed that variety; they introduced into every borough the £10 household franchise, and with a slight exception, which we need not take account of, made that franchise the only one in all boroughs. They raised the standard in the boroughs in which it was lower than £10, and lowered it in those where it was higher; and in this way they changed the cardinal principle of the system which they found established, for uniformity as the rule, instead of variety.
And this worked well enough at first, for there was not for some years after 1832 much wish for any more change in our constituencies. But in our own time we have seen the harm of it. If you establish any uniform franchise in a country, then it at once becomes a question, What sort of franchise is it to be? Those under it will say that they are most unjustly excluded; they will deny that there is any real difference between themselves and those above; they will show without difficulty that some whom the chosen line leaves out, are even better than those whom it takes in. And they will raise the cry so familiar in our ears—the cry of class legislation. They will say, Who are these ten-pound householders, these arbitrarily chosen middle-class men, that they should be sole electors? Why should they be alone enfranchised and all others practically disfranchised, either by being swamped by their more numerous votes or by not having votes at all? The case is the stronger because one of the most ancient functions of Parliament, and especially the Commons’ House of Parliament, is the reformation of grievances. This suited very well with the old system of variety; in that miscellaneous collection of constituencies every class was sure to have some members who represented it. There were then working-class constituencies sending members to speak for them—“men,” says Mackintosh, “of popular talents, principles, and feelings; quick in suspecting oppression, bold in resisting it, not thinking favourably of the powerful; listening almost with credulity to the complaints of the humble and the feeble, and impelled by ambition when they are not prompted by generosity to be defenders of the defenceless”. And in cases of popular excitement, especially of erroneous excitement, this plan ensured that it should have adequate expression, and so soon made it calm. But the legislation of 1832 destroyed these working men’s constituencies; “they put the country,” as it was said afterwards, “under ten-pounders only”. And in consequence there are in our boroughs now nothing but working-class constituencies; there are no longer any ten-pound householders at all. There is throughout our boroughs a uniform sort of franchise, and that the worst sort—a franchise which gives the predominance to the most ignorant and the least competent, if they choose to use it. The middle classes have as little power as they had before 1832, and the only difference is, that before 1832 they were ruled by those who were richer than themselves, and now they are ruled by those who are poorer.
No doubt there is still an inequality in the franchise between counties and boroughs—the sole remnant of the variety of our ancient system. But that inequality is much more difficult to defend now when it stands alone, than it was in old times when it was one of many. And the “ugly rush” of the lower orders, which has effaced the “hard and fast” line established in 1832, threatens to destroy this remnant of variety. In a few years probably there will be but one sort of franchise throughout all England, and the characteristic work of 1832 will be completely undone; the middle classes, whose intelligence Macaulay praised, and to whom he helped to give so much power, will have had all that power taken away from them.
No doubt, too, there is still a real inequality of influence, though there is an even equality of franchise. The difference of size between different boroughs gives more power to those in the small boroughs than to those in the large. And this is very valuable, for elections for large boroughs are costly, and entail much labour that is most disagreeable. But here, again, the vicious precedent of establishing uniformity set in 1832 is becoming excessively dangerous. Being so much used to it people expect to see it everywhere. There is much risk that before long there may be only one sort of vote and only one size of constituency all over England, and then the reign of monotony will be complete.
And, secondly, the reformers of 1832 committed an almost worse error in destroying one kind of select constituency without creating an intellectual equivalent. We are not used nowadays to think of nomination boroughs as select constituencies, but such, in truth, they were, and such they proved themselves to be at, perhaps, the most critical period of English history. Lord Russell, no favourable judge, tells us “that it enabled Sir Robert Walpole to consolidate the throne of the House of Hanover amid external and internal dangers”. No democratic suffrage could then have been relied on for that purpose, for the mass of Englishmen were then more or less attached to their hereditary king, and they might easily have been induced to restore him. They had not, indeed, a fanatical passion of loyalty towards him, nor any sentiment which would make them brave many dangers on his behalf; but there was much sluggish and sullen prejudice which might have been easily aroused to see that he had his rights, and there were many relics of ancient loyal zeal which might have combined with that prejudice and ennobled it. Nor did the people of that day much care for what we should now call Parliamentary government. The educated opinion of that day was strongly in favour of the House of Hanover; but the numerical majority of the nation was not equally so; perhaps it would have preferred the House of Stuart. But the higher nobility and the richer gentry possessed a great power over the opinions of Parliament because many boroughs were subject to their control, and by exerting that power they, in conjunction with the trading classes, who were then much too weak to have moved by themselves, fixed the House of Hanover on the throne, and so settled the freedom of England. These boroughs at that time, for this purpose being select constituencies, were of inestimable value, because they enabled the most competent opinion in England to rule without dispute, when, under any system of diffused suffrage, that opinion would either have been out-voted or almost so.
And to the last these boroughs retained much of this peculiar merit. They were an organ for what may be called specialised political thought, for trained intelligence busy with public affairs. Not only did they bring into Parliament men of genius and ability, but they kept together a higher political world capable of appreciating that genius and ability when young, and of learning from it when old. The Whig party, such as it was in those days especially, rested on this Parliamentary power. In them was a combination of more or less intelligent noblemen of liberal ideas and aims, who chose such men as Burke, and Brougham, and Hume, and at last Macaulay, to develop those ideas and to help to attain those aims. If they had not possessed this peculiar power, they would have had no such intellectual influence; they would have simply been gentlemen of what we now think good ideas, with no special means of advancing them. And they would not have been so closely combined together as they were; they would have been scattered persons of political intelligence. But having this power they combined together, lived together, thought together; and the society thus formed was enriched and educated by the men of genius whom it selected as instruments, and in whom in fact it found teachers. And there was something like it on the Government side, though the long possession of power, and perhaps the nature of Toryism, somewhat modified its characteristics.
The effect is to be read in the Parliamentary debates of those times. Probably they are absolutely better than our own. They are intrinsically a better discussion of the subjects of their day than ours are of our subjects. But however this may be, they are beyond question relatively better. General knowledge of politics has greatly improved in the last fifty years, and the best political thought of the present day is much superior to any which there was then. So that, even if our present Parliamentary debates retained the level of their former excellence they would still not bear the same relation to the best thought of the present, that the old ones bear to the best thought of the past. And if the debates have really fallen off much (as I am sure they have), this conclusion will be stronger and more certain.
Nor is this to be wondered at. If you lessen the cause you will lessen the effect too. Not only are the men whom these select constituencies brought into Parliament not now to be be found there, but the society which formed those constituencies, and which chose those men, no longer exists. The old parties were combinations partly aristocratic, partly intellectual, cemented by the common possession and the common use of political power. But now that the power is gone the combinations are dissolved. The place which once knew them knows them no more. Any one who looks for them in our present London and our present politics will scarcely find much that is like them.
This society sought for those whom it thought would be useful to it in all quarters. There was a regular connection between the “Unions”—the great debating societies of Oxford and Cambridge—and Parliament. Young men who seemed promising had even a chance of being competed for by both parties. We all know the lines which the wit of Brookes’s made upon Mr. Canning:—
This meant that it having been said and believed that Mr. Canning, who had just left Oxford, was to be brought into Parliament by the Whig Opposition, he went over to Mr. Pitt, and was brought in by the Tory Ministry. The Oxford Liberals of our generation are quite exempt from similar temptations. So far from their support in Parliament being craved by both sides, they cannot enter Parliament at all. When many of these tried to enter Parliament in the autumn of 1867, their egregious failure was one of the most striking events of that remarkable time.
There was a connection, too, then between the two parts of the public service now most completely divided—the permanent and the Parliamentary civil services. Now, as we all know, the chief clerks in the Treasury and permanent heads of departments never think of going into Parliament; they regard the Parliamentary statesmen who are set to rule over them much as the Bengalees regard the English—as persons who are less intelligent and less instructed than themselves, but who nevertheless are to be obeyed. They never think of changing places any more than a Hindoo thinks of becoming an Englishman. But in old times, men like Lord Liverpool, Sir George Rose, and Mr. Huskisson were found eminent in the public offices, and in consequence of that eminence, were brought into Parliament. The party in office were then, as now, anxious to obtain competent help in passing measures of finance and detail, and they then obtained it thus, whereas now their successors do not obtain it at all.
There was then, too, a sort of romantic element in the lives of clever young men which is wholly wanting now. Some one said that Macaulay’s was like a life in a fairy tale;—he opens a letter which looks like any other letter, and finds that it contains a seat in Parliament. Gibbon says that just as he was destroying an army of barbarians, Sir Gilbert Elliot called and offered him a seat for Liskeard. Great historians will never probably again be similarly interrupted. The effect of all this was to raise the intellectual tone of Parliament. At present the political conversation of members of Parliament—a few of the greatest excepted—is less able and less striking than that of other persons of fair capacity. There is a certain kind of ideas which you hardly ever hear from any other educated person, but which they have to talk to their constituents, and which, if you will let them, they will talk to you too. Some of the middle-aged men of business, the “soapboilers,” as the London world disrespectfully calls them, whom local influence raises to Parliament, really do not seem to know any better; they repeat the words of the hustings as if they were parts of their creed. And as for the more intellectual members who know better, no one of good manners likes to press them too closely in argument in politics any more than he likes to press a clergyman too strictly on religion. In both cases the status in the world depends on the belief in certain opinions, and therefore it is thought rather ill-bred, except for some great reason, to try to injure that belief. Intellectual deference used to be paid to members of Parliament, but now, at least in London, where the species is known, the remains of that deference are rare.
The other side of the same phenomenon is the increased power of the provinces, and especially of the constituencies. Any gust of popular excitement runs through them instantly, grows greater and greater as it goes, till it gains such huge influence that for a moment the central educated world is powerless. No doubt, if only time can be gained, the excitement passes away; something new succeeds, and the ordinary authority of trained and practised intelligence revives. But if an election were now to happen at an instant of popular fury, that fury would have little or nothing to withstand it. And, even in ordinary times, the power of the constituencies is too great. They are fast reducing the members, especially the weaker sort of them, to delegates. There is already, in many places, a committee which often telegraphs to London, hoping that their member will vote this way or that, and the member is unwilling not to do so, because at the next election, if offended, the committee may, perchance, turn the scale against him. And this dependence weakens the intellectual influence of Parliament, and of that higher kind of mind of which Parliament ought to be the organ.
We must remember that if now we feel these evils we must expect ere long to feel them much more. The Reform Act of 1867 followed in the main the precedent of 1832; and year by year we shall feel its consequences more and more. The two precedents which have been set will of necessity, in the English world, which is so much guided by precedent, determine the character of future Reform Acts. And if they do, the supremacy of the central group of trained and educated men which our old system of Parliamentary choice created, will be completely destroyed, for it is already half gone.
I know it is thought that we can revive this intellectual influence. Many thoughtful reformers believe that by means of Mr. Hare’s system of voting, by the cumulative suffrage, the limited suffrage, or by some others like them, we may be able to replace that which the legislation of 1832 began to destroy, and that which those who follow them are destroying. And I do not wish to say a word against this hope. On the contrary, I think that it is one of the most important duties of English politicians to frame these plans into the best form of which they are capable, and to try to obtain the assent of the country to them. But the difficulty is immense. The reformers of 1832 destroyed intellectual constituencies in great numbers without creating any new ones, and without saying, indeed without thinking, that it was desirable to create any. They thus by conspicuous action, which is the most influential mode of political instruction, taught mankind that an increase in the power of numbers was the change most to be desired in England. And of course the mass of mankind are only too ready to think so. They are always prone to believe their own knowledge to be “for all practical purposes” sufficient, and to wish to be emancipated from the authority of the higher culture. What we have now to do, therefore, is to induce this self-satisfied, stupid, inert mass of men to admit its own insufficiency, which is very hard; to understand fine schemes for supplying that insufficiency, which is harder; and to exert itself to get those ideas adopted, which is hardest of all. Such is the duty which the reformers of 1832 have cast upon us.
And this is what of necessity must happen if you set men like Lord Althorp to guide legislative changes in complex institutions. Being without culture, they do not know how these institutions grew; being without insight, they only see one half of their effect; being without foresight, they do not know what will happen if they are enlarged; being without originality, they cannot devise anything new to supply, if necessary, the place of what is old. Common-sense no doubt they have; but common-sense without instruction can no more wisely revise old institutions than it can write the Nautical Almanack. Probably they will do some present palpable good, but they will do so at a heavy cost; years after they have passed away, the bad effects of that which they did, and of the precedents which they set, will be hard to bear and difficult to change. Such men are admirably suited to early and simple times. English history is full of them, and England has been made mainly by them; but they fail in later times, when the work of the past is accumulated, and no question is any longer simple. The simplicity of their one-ideaed minds, which is suited to the common arithmetic and vulgar fractions of early societies, is not suited, indeed rather unfits them, for the involved analysis and complex “problem papers” of later ages.
There is little that in a sketch like this need be said of Lord Althorp’s life after the passing of the Reform Act. The other acts of Lord Grey’s Ministry have nothing so memorable or so characteristic of Lord Althorp that anything need be said about them. Nor does any one in the least care now as to the once celebrated mistake of Mr. Littleton in dealing with O’Connell, or Lord Althorp’s connection with it. Parliamentary history is only interesting when it is important constitutional history or when it illustrates something in the character of some interesting man. But the end of Lord Althorp’s public life was very curious. In the November of 1834 his brother, Lord Spencer, died, and as he was then leader of the House of Commons, a successor for him had to be found. But William IV., whose liberal partialities had long since died away, began by objecting to every one proposed, and ended by turning out the Ministry—another event in his reign which our coming republicans will no doubt make the most of. But I have nothing to do with the King and the constitutional question now. My business is with Lord Althorp. He acted very characteristically—he said that a retirement from office was to him the “cessation of acute pain,” and never afterwards would touch it again, though he lived for many years. Nor was this an idle affectation, far less indolence. “You must be aware,” he said once before, in a letter to Lord Brougham, “that my being in office is nothing less than a source of misery to me. I am perfectly certain that no man ever disliked it to such a degree as I do; and, indeed, the first thing that usually comes into my head when I wake is how to get rid of it.” He retired into the country and occupied himself with the rural pursuits which he loved best, attended at quarter-sessions, and was active as a farmer. “Few persons,” said an old shepherd, “could compete with my lord in a knowledge of sheep.” He delighted to watch a whole flock pass, and seemed to know them as if he had lived with them. “Of all my former pursuits,” he wrote, just after Lady Althorp’s death, and in the midst of his grief, “the only one in which I now take any interest is breeding stock; it is the only one in which I can build castles in the air.” And as soon as he could, among such castles in the air he lived and died. No doubt, too, much better for himself than for many of his friends, who long wanted to lure him back to politics. He was wise with the solid wisdom of agricultural England; popular and useful; sagacious in usual things; a model in common duties; well able to advise men in the daily difficulties which are the staple of human life. But beyond this he could not go. Having no call to decide on more intellectual questions, he was distressed and pained when he had to do so. He was a man so picturesquely out of place in a great scene, that if a great describer gets hold of him he may be long remembered; and it was the misfortune of his life that the simplicity of his purposes and the trustworthiness of his character raised him at a great conjuncture to a high place for which Nature had not meant him, and for which he felt that she had not meant him.
[1 ]Memoir of John Charles, Viscount Althorp, third Earl Spencer. By the late Sir Denis Le Marchant, Bart. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1876.
[1 ] Wordsworth’s Prelude.
[1 ]Memoir, chap. xix.