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STATE OF POLITICS IN 1836 1836 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume VI - Essays on England, Ireland, and the Empire, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Joseph Hamburger (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982).
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STATE OF POLITICS IN 1836
London and Westminster Review, III & XXV (Apr., 1836), 271-8. Headed: “Art. XII. / state of politics in 1836.” Running titles: 271, 272, 274, 276, 278, “Commencement of the Session”; 273, 275, 277, “Progress of Reform.” Signed “A.” Not republished. Identified in Mill’s bibliography as “An article entitled ‘State of Politics in 1836,’ and headed ‘Commencement of the Session’—‘Progress of Reform,’ in the same number of the same review”, i.e., as “Civilization” (MacMinn, 47). There are no corrections or emendations in the copy (tear-sheets) in Somerville College.
State of Politics in 1836
the opening of the Session has been auspicious. The year 1836 promises to be not unfruitful of important improvements in the details of our laws, while it has already afforded new and hopeful indications not only of the rapidity, but of the tranquility with which the nation is travelling towards the attainment of the best government to which in its present state of civilization it can aspire.
The advantages are generally much overrated, which this country has derived from her possession of the forms of popular government, for a long period, during which the other nations of Europe were more destitute of the forms than even of the substance. But among these otherwise overrated advantages, is one which it is hardly possible to overrate: public opinion has acquired, has irrevocably acquired, the means of expressing itself peacefully. Whether the nation is of one opinion or another, does not, as in all other European countries, remain questionable until the sword decides it. A country in which there were no public meetings, no liberty of association, and, except at Paris, practically no liberty of the press, had to fight for three days before it could get rid of a dynasty which had scarcely an adherent left; and the world cried wonder at so great a revolution accomplished with so little bloodshed. The English effected a much greater change—gave the mortal stroke to one of the most powerful aristocracies in existence—accomplished a revolution equal to those for which, in former days or in other countries, generations of human beings have been swept away—overcame (we take from the lips of the Tories the catalogue of their forces) the King, the Lords, the Church, and the Land; and accomplished this, merely by assuming so imposing an attitude, that the warrior of Torres Vedras and Waterloo was either not bold enough, or not remorseless enough, to lead the charge against them.
The passing of the Reform Bill was our taking of the Bastille; it was the first act of our great political change; and like its precursor, it is a sample of the character of all that will follow. As the one was bloody, and the beginning of a bloody revolution, so does the pacific character of the other almost guarantee the peacefulness of the changes yet to come.
This reflection, which must have occurred to many at that remarkable period whose spirit-stirring events gave occasion to it, has been, perhaps, too much lost sight of in the succeeding four years. The resistance which the course of reform has since encountered, created an exaggerated impression of the difficulties which still remained for it to overcome. It was to be expected, that the defeated army would rally after the first overthrow; that they would mistake the fatigue of their victorious adversaries, and the momentary hesitation what point next to attack, for a reaction in their own favour; would indulge hopes that the strength which levelled them to the ground was the result of a temporary exaltation, and that when it subsided, things would quietly return to their former course. Defeated aristocracies have always been prone to such vain hopes. The royalists, during the first French Revolution, were in weekly expectation of some change which was to restore their ascendancy; nay, the Carlists of France indulge such expectations even now. But the English aristocracy is preserved from the fate which usually attends on such illusions, by causes with which their own discernment has little to do: they cannot foresee, but it is not possible for any one, living in this country, not to see. They foresaw nothing during the two years’ discussion of the Reform Bill; but when the moment came, they saw their weakness and quailed. They foresaw not, when Sir Robert Peel came in, nor even when he was turned out, that their attempt to maintain a Tory ministry with a reformed Parliament must, for the time at least, be unsuccessful. But their demeanour in the present session proves that they see it now. If they did not, would they have abstained, as they have done, from opposing Ministers in the House of Commons in almost any one of their measures? or would the implacable Orangemen have been driven to disband themselves by a word?
The spirit of the Tory party is broken. They will rally again; and the power which, with the present constitution of society in England, so long as the protection of the ballot is refused, they can always, except in times of universal enthusiasm, exercise over the elections, may enable them more than once to rally in considerable strength. But all is in vain; for it is becoming obvious to everybody else, and at each defeat it will become so to more and more among themselves, that if the time comes when their defeat cannot be accomplished without the ballot, it will be accomplished by the ballot.
Meanwhile, the strong minority which the Tories for a time possess, has produced for the present a closer union, and a consequent increase of moral strength, among the opposite ranks. And this result, in itself so desirable, has not been effected, as we feared it would be, by compromises of principle on the part of the thorough Reformers. The thorough Reformers have met the Whigs half way; but it is only half way. The Ministers have, this session, evinced an activity in the work of reform, and a disposition to make its spirit penetrate into various branches of our institutions yet unvisited by it, which prove that they are, in some measure, awakened to the necessities of their position; and entitle them, while such conduct continues, to the strenuous support of the more vigorous Reformers—though not to the kind of support which ministries are most prone to demand, and, we grieve to say it, most accustomed to receive—the suppression of the utterance of any opinion which it is not convenient to them to go along with.
Among the measures, either introduced into Parliament, or promised to be introduced, for which commendation cannot be refused to Ministers, we will enumerate the following.
First, the Marriage Bill.[*] This is entitled to a praise which can rarely be bestowed upon the attempts of English statesmen in the character of Reformers. Though it deals with only one branch of an extensive subject, it is, within the limits of that branch, a complete measure; it leaves no relic of the grievance which it professes to remedy. All former bills for the same ostensible purpose had one of two grievous defects; they either exacted, as the condition of the validity of a civil contract, the performance of a religious ceremony, or they made a distinction between the clergy of the established and those of the dissenting sects, degrading to the latter.[†] By the present bill, nothing, in the ceremony of marriage, is required by the State, but that with which alone the State is concerned, the due execution and registration of the civil contract; while, at the same time, the religious ceremony, though legally imposed upon no one, is allowed, at the option of those who prefer it, to have, when duly registered, the force of a civil contract; and this equally, with whatever formalities, and by a clergyman of whatever persuasion, the ceremony is performed.
With this measure is combined a plan for supplying one of the innumerable desiderata in our legal arrangements, a registration of births and deaths.[‡] The application of the machinery of the Poor Law Unions to this purpose, is a striking example of the manner in which one well-considered reform facilitates others. Having now, by the effect of Poor Law Reform, rural districts of the convenient size for municipal purposes, and local representative bodies of a tolerably popular character (the Boards of Guardians), we trust that we shall gradually see the whole of the local business (the administrative business we mean, not the judicial) turned over to these representative bodies. But a distinction must be made, which the framers of this measure have overlooked. The Boards of Guardians are fit bodies to conduct all, or almost all, the business of local administration, but the Central Board is not the proper body to superintend it all. The Central Board has quite as much as it can do in superintending the administration of the Poor Laws. To watch over other local business, other central boards, or central single functionaries, are requisite; the Boards of Guardians corresponding with each on the business of its own department. If everything which the local boards might conveniently do, were to be done by them under the control of the Commissioners of the Poor Laws, those Commissioners would become the Home Minister. There should be a controlling board, or a controlling officer, for every leading department of local administration, and a home minister, besides, to appoint these various officers, and hold them to a proper responsibility.
Next comes, as bearing some relation to the subject last noticed, the bill introduced to consolidate the Turnpike Trusts, and place them under a central board.[*] No reform is more urgently required, and the principle of the measure is excellent; but its details are ill-considered. The roads are not placed, as they might advantageously be, under the superintendence of the Boards of Guardians; and the Central Board almost seems constituted in imitation of that prodigy of imbecility and jobbery the Record Commission, upon the incompetency and abuses of which, the exertions of Mr. Charles Buller and other meritorious persons are now throwing so much light.[†] A board composed of numerous members, some of them persons of too many occupations or of too much dignity to attend to the business, becomes a mere screen[‡] for the misconduct of the one, or the two or three, individuals, into whose hands the management really falls.
We shall next advert to the Irish Corporation Reform Bill;[§] and most satisfactory it is, that the destructive part of the bill, which in this, as in most of the reforming measures of our Ministers, is the most important part, even the House of Lords will not venture to deny to us. Not a Tory has dared to say a word in vindication of the existing corporations; and those nests of all that is sordid in jobbing, and odious in sectarian animosity, will be swept without further delay from that earth which they contaminate. We go the full length with those who assert the claim of the Irish to popular local institutions, as the most efficient of all instruments for training the people in the proper use of representative government. But this benefit ought to be afforded to the whole kingdom, and not merely to the inhabitants of a few towns. Whether or not the constructive parts of the present measure be rejected by the House of Lords, the Ministers should give notice, for next session, of a general measure for the creation of provincial representative assemblies throughout Ireland.
The Church Reform which is announced, (for the recommendations of the Church Commissioners may be considered as those of the Ministry,) has one point of excellence, and it is a considerable one.[*] By diminishing the number of sinecures, and increasing the restrictions on pluralities and non-residence, it renders the good things of the Church by so much less valuable to the aristocracy, and so far tends to deprive the institution of what principally upholds it in its iniquities. Other merit than this the measure has none; for the endowment of the clergy of a particular sect with national property, and with civil or political privileges denied to other sects, is intrinsically a mischief, which may be extirpated, but can scarcely be palliated; and the only inducement by which any person worthy of the name of a statesman in these times, could be induced to uphold the Church, would be the hope of unsectarianizing it. With this view the elevation of one man to a post of dignity in the Church, who was the friend and not the enemy of free inquiry, and who was known to estimate others according to the spirit of their religion, more than according to its dogmas, would be better entitled to the name of Church Reform than a hundred measures like the present. But this road will not be tried till it is too late.
The Tithe Bill,[†] though liable to serious objections, which have been very forcibly stated in the Morning Chronicle,[‡] is deserving of praise as an honest attempt to settle an important and most difficult practical question. In the adjustment it seems impossible to avoid doing injustice to somebody, and all that can be hoped is to render the injustice as little as possible. The average for a certain period of years, should obviously be the measure of what existing incumbents, at least, should hereafter receive. For apportioning the payment among the different estates of the parish, there are but two principles which seem possible: to assess each estate in proportion to its value, or according to the amount hitherto paid by each. Either system requires that there be somewhere a power to relieve extreme cases; and if we are not ripe for making this relief a charge prospectively upon the Church property itself, the best mode of affording it would, perhaps, be a pro rata assessment upon all the other estates.
Lastly, we must not overlook, among the beneficial measures in progress, (notwithstanding the niggardly half-measure with which it is attempted to satisfy us on the important subject of the newspaper stamp,)[*] the improvements announced in our system of Taxation.[†] Much gross inequality of pressure, bearing, as is invariably the case, hardest upon those who can least afford it, will be remedied or greatly alleviated by the general revision of the stamp laws; and some partial relief from one of the most burthensome of our monopolies, that which taxes us from a million to a million and a half a-year for the privilege of buying bad timber from Canada instead of good from the Baltic, has been declared to be in immediate contemplation.
There are not wanting, to set against these subjects of commendation, serious grounds of complaint. The discreditable exhibition of Sir George Grey on Mr. Roebuck’s motion respecting the Mauritius;[‡] the navy increased, on pretexts such as can never be wanting, and which were triumphantly exposed by Mr. Hume,[§] (the real cause being, according to general belief, that Ministers are smitten with the epidemic disease of Russo-phobia;) the reduction of the army (and the abolition of the privileges of the Guards, so obnoxious to the army itself) resisted, in the exact tone and spirit in which all reforms used to be resisted in the old Tory times, namely, not by argument, but by insolent assumption, and denial of facts generally notorious, or resting upon official evidence. We receive these and similar things, as a salutary warning how much of the old leaven still remains in the present Cabinet, and how little can be trusted to their own inclination towards good, when not acted upon by a little friendly compulsion. That compulsion must be applied, and, moreover, must be yielded to, if they would hope to retain the support of the real reformers beyond the present session. For by the measures now in progress the budget of Whig reforms is almost exhausted; and they must either join with the Tories in resisting, or with the Radicals in carrying, improvements of a more fundamental kind than any but the latter have yet ventured to identify themselves with. Fortunately for Ministers, they have the immense field of Law Reform from which to gather a harvest of popularity; and they have had the good sense to provide for themselves, in the present Master of the Rolls,[¶] a coadjutor, whose zeal in the work will need no quickener, but will be a most salutary quickener to theirs, and of whose capacity it is sufficient here to say, that no man living is so thoroughly acquainted at once with the ends to be aimed at, and the means of attaining those ends with the least possible inconvenience.
The Radical party in Parliament has, with few exceptions, preserved its accustomed torpidity. Those who had formerly done something, have done more than usual; but those who were accustomed to do nothing, have done it still. Among the meritorious few, Mr. Hume may, as usual, be numbered; and it may be permitted to this Review to commemorate the fact, that several younger members, in whom it can claim a peculiar interest, have been active in asserting in Parliament the principles which they promulgate here.[*] This is not, we know, anything to boast of; but were the fact otherwise, there would be disgrace.
Among the features in the present session, which ought not to be passed without notice, is the great multitude of Private Bills—bills for authorizing the expenditure of capital on public undertakings of all sorts, but especially on internal communication. The rage for projects has taken that direction more decidedly than any other, and has reached a height which the famous bubble year, 1825, scarcely surpassed. It seems only needful for a surveyor and a parliamentary agent to lay their heads together and invent a new line of railroad, and their share list is almost immediately filled. This subject well deserves that the attention of the legislature should be bestowed upon it, more comprehensively and systematically than it has yet been.
There is no one but must wish for means of cheap and rapid conveyance from one of the great centres of commercial operations to another; and all must be satisfied that such means will, in no long period, be had. But no one can wish that lines of railroad should be more numerous than necessary; because, in the first place, it is far from desirable that this island, the most beautiful portion perhaps of the earth’s surface for its size, should be levelled and torn up in a hundred unnecessary directions by those deformities; and next, because the test, the unerring test, of the usefulness of a railroad is its yielding a profit to the subscribers; a result which the undue multitude of railroads must necessarily frustrate, as to most, if not as to all of them. For example—we do not ground our opinion on any peculiar knowledge—on the face of the matter it seems absurd to suppose that both the Great Western Railway, and the London and Southampton, can pay; though it is just possible that either of them might, if the other did not exist. Nor is it desirable that the choice of a line should be determined by no better test than the judgment of an irresponsible engineer, and the parliamentary influence happened to be possessed by the private interests which expect to be benefited or injured by it. No railroad schemes ought to receive the sanction of Parliament, until, by a general survey of the country, it shall have been ascertained what are the shortest and most convenient lines for a general system of railway communication, to connect all the important points. If this were done, all railways on those lines would, sooner or later, be profitable, and their construction ought to be permitted on those lines only; the nation stipulating for as large a share of the profits as the competition of rival companies might assign to it. Then might we hope for some, though but a distant approximation to the good fortune of the States of Pennsylvania and New York, each of which will speedily defray the whole expenses of its internal government from the profits of railroads constructed at the public expense.
We must add one other consideration. In the choice of a line it is disgraceful that not one thought should be bestowed upon the character of the natural scenery which is threatened with destruction. It is highly desirable that there should be a railway to Brighton; scarcely any one which could be constructed would be convenient to such a multitude of persons, or is likely to be so profitable to the subscribers. But of the five rival lines which have been proposed, two, if not three, and particularly Stephenson’s, would, to a great degree, annihilate the peculiar beauty of a spot unrivalled in the world for the exquisiteness, combined with the accessibility, of its natural scenery: the vale of Norbury, at the foot of Box Hill. Yet into the head of hardly one Member of Parliament does it appear to have come, that this consideration ought to weigh one feather, even on the question of preference among a variety of lines, in other respects probably about equal in their advantages. Yet these men have voted £11,000 of the people’s money for two Correggios, and many thousands more for a building to put them in,[*] and will hold forth by the hour about encouraging the fine arts, and refining the minds of the people by the pleasures of imagination. We see, by this contrast, what amount of real taste, real wish to cultivate in the people the capacity of enjoying beauty, or real capacity for enjoying it themselves, is concerned in this profuse expenditure of public money; although two-thirds of these men would shout in chorus against “political economists” and “utilitarians” for having no imagination, and despising that faculty in others. The truth is, that in this country the sense of beauty, as a national characteristic, scarcely exists. What is mistaken for it is the taste for costliness, and for whatever has a costly appearance. If the Correggios could have been had for as many pence as they cost pounds, our precious aristocracy would have scoffed at the idea of their being worth purchasing.
[[*] ]“A Bill for Marriages in England,” 6 William IV (17 Feb., 1836), PP, 1836, I, 393-401 (subsequently enacted as 6 & 7 William IV, c. 85).
[[†] ]See, e.g., “A Bill to Relieve Certain Persons Dissenting from the Church of England, from Some Parts of the Ceremony Required by Law in the Celebration of Marriages,” 59 George III (28 June, 1819), PP, 1819, I, 357-8; “A Bill to Alter and Amend Certain Parts of an Act of His Late Majesty King George the Second, Commonly Called The Marriage Act, Affecting Certain Dissenters,” 3 George IV (22 Apr., 1822), ibid., 1822, II, 987-9; “A Bill for Granting Relief in Relation to the Celebration of Marriages to Certain Persons Dissenting from the United Church of England and Ireland,” 4 William IV (10 Mar., 1834), ibid., 1834, II, 147-59; and “A Bill Concerning the Marriages of Persons Not Being Members of the United Church of England and Ireland, and Objecting to Be Married According to the Rite Thereof,” 5 William IV (30 Mar., 1835), ibid., 1835, III, 413-21 (none of these enacted).
[[‡] ]“A Bill for Registering Births, Deaths and Marriages in England,” 6 William IV (17 Feb., 1836), ibid., 1836, I, 309-26 (subsequently enacted as 6 & 7 William IV, c. 86).
[[*] ]“A Bill to Authorize the Consolidation of the Trusts of Turnpike Roads in That Part of Great Britain Called England,” 6 William IV (9 Feb., 1836), PP, 1836, VI, 427-39 (not enacted).
[[†] ]“Report from the Select Committee on the Record Commission,” ibid., XVI; see also Charles Buller’s motion on the Record Commission (18 Feb., 1836), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 31, cols. 551-9.
[[‡] ]Cf. Bentham, Letters to Lord Grenville, in Works, ed. Bowring, Vol. V, p. 17.
[[§] ]“A Bill for the Regulation of Municipal Corporations and Borough Towns in Ireland,” 6 William IV (16 Feb., 1836), PP, 1836, II, 549-627 (not enacted).
[[*] ]“A Bill for Carrying into Effect the Fourth Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Consider the State of the Established Church in England and Wales,” 7 William IV (8 July, 1836), ibid., I, 621-31 (enacted as 6 & 7 William IV, c. 77). See also “Fourth Report from His Majesty’s Commissioners Appointed to Consider the State of the Established Church,” PP, 1836, XXXVI, 65-78 (“First Report,” ibid., 1835, XXII, 1-14; “Second Report,” ibid., 1836, XXXVI, 1-44; and “Third Report,” ibid., 47-60).
[[†] ]“A Bill for the Commutation of Tithes in England,” 6 William IV (11 Feb., 1836), ibid., VI, 125-44 (enacted as 6 & 7 William IV, c. 71).
[[‡] ]Leading Article, Morning Chronicle, 21 Mar., 1836, p. 2.
[[*] ]“A Bill to Reduce the Stamp Duties Payable on Newspapers,” PP, 1836, V, 821-53 (enacted as 6 & 7 William IV, c. 54).
[[†] ]Richard George Robinson, Speech on the Taxation of the Country (24 Mar., 1836), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 32, cols. 552-62.
[[‡] ]George Grey, Speech on the State of the Mauritius (15 Feb., 1836), ibid., Vol. 31, cols. 401-20; John Arthur Roebuck, Motion on the State of the Mauritius, ibid., cols. 390-401.
[[§] ]Joseph Hume, Speech on Spain (5 Feb., 1836), ibid., col. 127.
[[¶] ]Henry Bickersteth.
[[*] ]Contributors to the London and Westminster who were also members of parliament were Charles Buller, William Molesworth (proprietor of the review), and John Arthur Roebuck.
[[*] ]By 4 & 5 William IV, c. 84 (1834), §17, which covers both the acquisition of the paintings and a grant towards the construction of the building (the National Gallery).