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A History of the Nineteenth Century, Year by Year

Notably Lord Palmerston and Cavendish


The Reform Bill]

Throughout this year in England raged the great debate over the government's proposed reform of the rotten borough system. A bill to this effect was introduced by Lord Russell on March 1, immediately after the opening of Parliament. In the seven days' debate that followed the best speakers of England took part, among them Lord Palmerston, Sir Robert Peel, Daniel O'Connell, and young Macaulay, who had only just entered Parliament. By the opponents of the bill reform was denounced as revolution. The government of the United States of North America was cited as a deterrent example. Thus Sir Robert Peel said:

[Sidenote: Robert Peel's speech]

[Sidenote: America a "Deterrent Example"]

"Many experiments have been tried to engraft democratical on monarchical institutions, but how have they succeeded? In France, in Spain, in Portugal, in the Netherlands, in every country on the face of the earth, with the exception of the United States, has the experiment of forming a popular government, and of uniting it with monarchy, been tried; and how, I will again ask, has it succeeded? In America, the House has been told that the most beneficent effects of a representative form of government are plainly visible. But I beg to remind the House that there is a wide difference indeed between the circumstances of this country and of America. In the

United States the Constitution has not been in existence more than forty years. I will not say it has been deteriorating, for I wish to avoid all invidious phrases; but it has been rapidly undergoing a change from a republic to a mere democracy. The influence of the executive--the influence of the government--has been daily becoming less, and more power has consequently been vested in the hands of the people. And yet, in that country, there is land uncultivated to an extent almost incalculable--there is no established church, no privileged orders--property exists on a very different tenure from that on which it is held in this country; therefore let not the people of England be deceived, let them not imagine, from the example of the United States, that because democracy has succeeded and triumphed there, it will also succeed and triumph here."

[Sidenote: Reform Bill debate]

[Sidenote: Exciting elections]

[Sidenote: Tories defeated]

[Sidenote: Cobbett's state trial]

Altogether seventy-one speakers joined in the debate. In the end the government obtained a second reading of the bill by a bare majority of one. The opposition had made a motion to withdraw the bill. After another prolonged debate this was carried against the government by a majority of eight. Parliament was dissolved as both Houses were on the point of carrying a motion asking the King not to consent to a dissolution. The elections which followed were turbulent in the extreme. Throughout England the reformers raised the cry: "The bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill." It was then that the custom of electioneering by means of processions and bands of music came into vogue. When the results of the elections were announced it was found that the Tories had lost more than a hundred seats. On the other hand a few of the most prominent supporters of the government suffered signal defeat, notably Lord Palmerston and Cavendish. On the Tory side, young Gladstone, then still a student at Oxford, came into notice by his warm speech against the proposed reform. Parliament was reopened with another hot debate on the all-engrossing bill. It was passed to a second reading by a strong majority of 135 votes. Scarcely had this been accomplished when the government was embarrassed by William Cobbett's state trial for sedition. Throughout the trial the Attorney-General treated Cobbett with marked courtesy, speaking of him as "one of the greatest masters of the English language who had ever composed in it."

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