British History - Brougham, Bentham, Owen, Cobbett The Radical Movement and the Second Repression Peterloo and Cato Street - The Queen's trial - Death of Castlereagh.
( Originally Published 1922 )
AFTER THE WAR, 1815 - 22
DURING the last half-dozen years of the war, the official Whig leaders went politically to sleep in their country seats, muttering pessimistic prophecies of the impossibility of conquering Napoleon. But the social and political revolt beginning in the new middle class against the Tory aristocracy found more vigorous expression in the self-assertive and ubiquitous energy of Henry Brougham, the very type of novus homo, with his square, plebeian nose, restless movements and hard yet lively features.
It was Brougham who had organised the agitation against the Orders in Council.1 As soon as the war was over, he compelled Government by a similar agitation to drop the Income Tax, which the middle classes, before Peel taught them to think more wisely, regarded as an inquisitorial interference with liberty and property, not to be borne save in war-time. The unpopular tax, which is one of the chief claims of Pitt to the gratitude of posterity, was bringing in fifteen millions in 1815. Its removal, due to Brougham's agitation, was one of the main reasons of the slow progress of fiscal reform and trade recovery prior to the time of Peel.
With the revival of the spirit of opposition after the war, Brougham gave voice to the growing indignation of all classes with the sinecures and pensions. To abolish them would have done much less to relieve the economic misery of the land than he and Cobbett made people believe, but it was a peculiarly gross insult to starving millions to make rich parasites richer out of taxes. Brougham also put his universal energies at the disposal of the champions of the negro, who were already preparing against slavery the same sort of campaign that had proved fatal to the slave-trade. And, true to his Scottish upbringing, he gave, as we have seen, his own vigour to the movement for popular education in England.
Though north-English by birth, Brougham belonged to the group of lawyers and University men at the Scottish capital who had founded the Edinburgh Review. They included the Rev. • Sydney Smith, also of England, and the Scot, Francis Jeffrey. At first these young partisans had only their wits to protect them in a time and country in which, as one of them said retrospectively, ` it was almost safer to be a felon than a Reformer.' But their caution and ability gained a hearing for the new school of liberal ideas in fashionable and learned society throughout Great Britain. In days when the means of diffusing knowledge and opinion were scanty, the Edinburgh Reviewers played an indispensable part in preparing the mind of the coming age. But their want of firmness over the Peninsular War incited Sir Walter Scott and other Tories to found the rival Quarterly. Judged by Victorian standards of criticism and science the early numbers of the Edinburgh and Quarterly seem very thin; but they were in their day a great advance.
The close connection of poetry and literature with political faction, illustrated by the history of these two famous Reviews and by the lives of Scott and Byron, Wordsworth and Cole-ridge, Shelley and Keats, though it had its regrettable side, was due to the high importance attached to poetry and to the Muses by the active world of that era as distinguished from our own. The lives of many of our greatest poets and painters also remind us how little the Napoleonic wars interrupted the daily work of civilisation in our island, when it was reaching a higher point of literary achievement than it had ever touched since the age of Shakespeare.
It would be difficult to find a better instance of that favourite maxim of our grandfathers that ` the pen is mightier than the sword,' than the effect upon British institutions of the uneventful life of Jeremy Bentham, a shy recluse of unimpressive speech and appearance, who was so little of a politician that even in 1817 he was not prosecuted for publishing his highly ` seditious ' Reform Catechism in favour of household suffrage. Born in 1748, and dying in 1832 just when his principles were beginning to invade the seats of power, he was never the man of the moment, but his influence was a force in history during more than a hundred years. As early as 1776,-that seminal year when the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and the first volume of Gibbon's History were given to the world, young Bentham's Fragment on Government also appeared. It challenged the legal doctrine of the age, sanctioned by Blackstone himself, that law was a fixed and authoritative science and the British Constitution perfect. Bentham, on the other hand, proclaimed both law and politics to be perpetual experiments in the means of promoting ` utility ' or happiness.
For the rest of his long life Bentham's propaganda among the higher intellect of the country was never intermitted, though the French Revolution and the anti-Jacobin reaction, both of which he disliked, delayed the acceptance of his doctrine. In his old age, and after his death, his ideas inspired the slow but sure reform of British institutions, as the ideas of Rousseau had inspired the cataclysm of old France.
Bentham impressed upon his countrymen the notion that existing institutions were not to be taken for granted, but to be judged by their results, and perpetually readjusted so as to produce ` the greatest happiness of the greatest number.' He did not invent that useful formula, which he had taken from Priestley, but he drove it into men's minds, and by reiterating it for half a century with a thousand different applications, he undermined the easy acceptance of chartered inefficiency and corruption, characteristic of the eighteenth century. Parliamentary, municipal, scholastic, ecclesiastical, economic reform all sprang from the spirit of Bentham's perpetual inquiry, ` what is the use of it ? ' - his universal shibboleth, that proved in the end the real English antidote to Jacobinism. The weakness of his system, even in the realm of politics, was the mechanical nature of its psychology, which misrepresented the multiform workings of the human mind.
Although the principles of his ` utilitarian ' philosophy were applied in the end to all spheres of government, his most direct and measurable success was the application that he him-self made of the ` utility ' test in the realm of law. Brougham said of him that ` he was the first legal philosopher that had appeared in the world,' and Dicey in our own day has quoted this judgment with approval. As law reformer, Bentham was fertile in practical invention as he was broad in principle. To him is owing the first suggestion of almost every one of the long series of law reforms which, beginning about 1820, in forty years swept away the sanguinary and unintelligent code which Eldon loved, that hanged men for theft and struck about in blind panic with the sword of justice. In the dry tree of Parliament from 1808 to 1818, Sir Samuel Romilly preached Bentham's doctrine of law reform to unwilling ears; after Romilly's tragic suicide, Sir James Mackintosh took up the work in the green tree of a more hopeful era.1
Bentham's utilitarianism 2 was most directly connected with the creed of the ' philosophic Radicals ' like James Mill and Francis Place, and with the sweeping away of abuses and privileges to clear the path for democratic individualism and laissez-faire. But it also inspired the movement towards Socialism, co-operation and State interference, which grew up side by side with ` classical ' economics and radical politics, though not at first with such rapid growth. All were in debt to Bentham, even common-sense Whigs like Macaulay, though he was provoked to write Edinburgh articles against the pedantry of the Utilitarian sect.
Robert Owen was the first to find the Socialistic application of the doctrines of ' utility.' He was the father of the factory laws and of the cooperative movement.
Never was there such a combination as in Robert Owen of business ability with moral simplicity and earnestness, and visionary insight, occasionally running to the absurd. Brought up in a Welsh village in the days of Wesley, his destiny lay in wider realms of thought and space, but his mind and character never lost the mark of an upbringing among poor people and among people aspiring earnestly towards an ideal outlook on everyday things. After a village schooling he went off into the great world and worked his way unaided up the ladder of the new industrialism, to become, before he was thirty, part owner and sole manager of the cotton mills of New Lanark in Scotland. In early life he was a magnificent example of ' self-help.'
While Napoleon was winning and losing Europe, Owen the time. In fifteen years he had made it a model of humane was quietly working out his social experiment. The Scottish factory, when he took it over, was as bad as other factories of and intelligent provision for mind and body, with moderate hours, good pay, healthy conditions both in the factory and the village, and good education, including the first infant school in the island. The outcome was a high morale among the hands. It was, he imagined, his great discovery that ` the character of man is formed for him, and not by him,' or, as we should now say, that ` environment makes character.' To prove it, he had by environment made the characters of the New Lanark employees; and at the same time he had made the fortune of the New Lanark Mills!
Owen's double success proved that if the social aspects of the Industrial Revolution had been attended to, its worst evils could have been avoided without a lowering of production, and that even in that age the big factory might have been used as a new and powerful engine of social amelioration. The world of that day admitted the facts; thousands of visitors drove all the way from the Thames to the Clyde, and the monarchs of Europe sent embassies to see the miracle of a happy factory-town. Men could not deny, yet would not believe, the living proof that Owen had set before their eyes.
In the year of Waterloo, Owen, having failed to persuade his brother manufacturers of the things that pertained to their peace, went up to London to persuade the Government itself. He was not by temperament and theory a democrat. He had been the patriarch of New Lanark, gently forming his men's characters ' for them.' He now wanted the Tory Cabinet to be equally paternal in its protection of all the factory hands in the island. With the simplicity of Parsifal, he came up to town expecting to make a convert of Castlereagh and a pupil of Parliament. His failure did not sour him, but it turned him back to the working-men themselves, whom he now regarded as the only possible agents of his vision of a new society.
His failure, though fundamental, had not been complete. Cabinet Ministers treated him with politeness, but gave no help. His plans were, however, taken up in Parliament by Sir Robert Peel, father of the great Sir Robert, a Lancashire millowner, originally of no good reputation as such, who had the family honesty to own that he had changed his mind on the need for factory legislation.
During Napoleon's Hundred Days, Owen and Peel drew up the first real Factory Bill It applied not merely to cotton, but to all factories; it forbade the employment of any child under ten years old, or after that for more than ten and a half hours a day; paid inspectors were to enforce its provisions. But the other manufacturers hastened up to London to protest against the insanity of these two eccentric members of their order. They established before a Committee the point that Owen was an infidel, and argued the more doubtful thesis that the children were well and happy in the mills. After four years' delay, a useless shadow of Peel's Bill was passed, for cotton only, with no important provision except the prohibition of child labour under nine. As there were to be no inspectors, the Act was ignored whenever employers and parents joined to break it.
The first campaign was lost, but Owen had started on the right lines the hundred years' war for State control. Thanks to him and to his successor, Lord Shaftesbury, not only children but parents have since found protection in an area of legislation ever widening down to our own day.
Owen himself, meanwhile, despairing of the governors, turned to the governed. He abandoned politics for labour association. Parliament had failed him; he did not propose to get it reformed, but to set the labourers to work out their own salvation. He became in a certain sense a democrat, but not, like Place and Cobbett, a Radical. He put himself at the head of the economic as distinct from the political action of the working-class. He devoted himself in the latter half of his life to starting the co-operative and extending the Trade Union movement. But that part of his life belongs to a later chapter of British history.
In spite of Owen's indifference to the cause, the movement for Parliamentary Reform, suppressed in the days of Pitt, revived first among the working-men, before it captured the middle classes. The reason is clear. While the middle classes were upon the whole prospering, except for severe fluctuations of trade, many of the workmen were suffering terribly, and their misery was much increased by the action of Parliament. While new laws were passed and enforced to prevent them from combining to keep up their wages, old laws which empowered the authorities to fix a fair wage were repealed, and finally, when peace promised a fall in the price of bread, a new Corn Law prohibited importation till wheat was 80s. a quarter. Parliament, in the interest now of employers, now of landlords, was always the enemy of working-men. They ate the rotten boroughs in their bread. Hence their hatred of the ` borough-mongers ' was more intense than that of the middle class, and made emphatic entry on the political stage a dozen years before the ` respectable classes ' under Whig patronage secured the first Reform Bill.
No doubt Owen understood the causes and some of the cures of working-class misery far better than Cobbett, whose economics were as wild as his history, and who disliked enclosures and factories too much to see any way out except an impossible return to the vanished ' yeoman ' world of his boyhood. Yet William Cobbett was the man who diverted the working-class from rick-burning and machine-breaking to agitate for Parliamentary Reform. His Weekly Political Register and the literature that sprang from it did much to convert the masses into thinking politicians, despite the Government's anxiety to shut them out from all aspects of citizenship. Cobbett's extravagance of theory, recklessness of statement and violence of diction obscured the fact that the whole tendency of his propaganda was to avert revolution and to guide the proletariat into the paths of constitutional action.
At the same time he made the wrongs and sufferings of the poor known to educated men. He angrily drew aside the curtain that hid their lives from public notice and sympathy. He proclaimed rich and poor to be one English nation, and demanded that the Constitution should include them both.
In spite of his gross unfairness and inaccuracy, Cobbett left his impress on all, even on those who hated him, because of his rare literary power, because of the fundamental sincerity and courage that underlay a good deal of posing, and because he was native of the soil. Paine, Bentham, Owen were citizens of the world. Burke, though he sang Britain's praises, had not our island note. But Cobbett, though he abused all that Burke praised, was John Bull incarnate.
The ` rights of man ' were nothing to him in the abstract, and foreigners were antipathetic. Born of Surrey peasants of the old breed, his heart's desire was to restore their rights and liberties as he had known them in his boyhood, and as he imagined them to have existed in even greater degree in the idealised English history of his vision. In one sense he was the only consistent Tory, for he was averse to the economic and social revolution which the nominal Tories were hurrying on. He was neither a ` philosophic Radical ' nor a Socialist. But he was the father of the unphilosophic Radicalism which played so great a part in English working-class opinion during the nineteenth century, because he saw that the only way to control economic change was to speed along political change till it had caught up with the furious pace of the Industrial Revolution.
Throughout the period of the Peninsular War, which he noisily and ignorantly opposed, Cobbett had been carrying on a Reform campaign in his Political Register, partly from prison where he lay two years to expiate his protest against the flogging of English militiamen at Ely by German soldiers. He invented a catchword, ' The Thing,' for the union of Ministers, boroughrnongers, pensioners, squires, clergy and manufacturers, by which he conceived England to be bound, bullied and bled; giving thus to all those in power one head that he might break it. But the Register cost more than a shilling, and most of those who could afford a shilling a week dreaded Cobbett, or dreaded being seen to read him. The working-men clubbed to buy copies and read them aloud, a method particularly useful in those days of illiteracy, but gatherings held for this purpose were broken up and penalised. It was in 1816, when he boldly reduced the price to twopence, that he became the real leader of the masses in the manufacturing districts, among whom a fierce agitation had at length broken out.
Nevertheless, Peterloo was the moral death-blow of the old Toryism. It might have passed unchallenged twenty years before, but coming when it did, it was fatal. The long sterile reign of anti-Jacobinism had been compressed into one dramatic scene, revealing like a flash of lightning the real relations of rulers and ruled. Popular prints for a dozen years to come made all men familiar with the symbolic figure of a mounted yeoman in his shako, prancing over a heap of shrieking women and sabring them on the ground. British history had made it impossible for this island to be governed for long on such terms. The laurels of the victors of Waterloo hung tarnished, and young men began to look elsewhere for their heroes and deliverers.'
The change of feeling had its effect on some of the rising generation of Tory leaders. Men as sensitive as Canning, as central-minded as Peel, as much in touch with the merchant community as Huskisson could feel in their bones that the great wind which had been blowing for thirty years at length had shifted its quarter.
But for three more years the old spirit was still supreme in the counsels of government. Indeed, if Peterloo was not to be disowned, there was no course open but further coercion, for the working-men of the North were clamouring for revenge. The ` Six Acts,' passed in the winter of 1819, were no more than an inevitable outcome of the policy previously adopted.
The Six Acts were not all of a piece. The Act that prohibited drilling was wise and has never been repealed. The Act to prevent large public meetings, at best a pitiable confession of the incompetence of the authorities, ran for five years and was not renewed. The most lasting injury to the community was done by the Act imposing a fourpenny stamp on all periodical publications, even though they were not news-papers. The object was to kill the Radical Press of the type of Cobbett's Register and the Black Dwarf, but incidentally it made it more difficult for the poor to get literature of any sort. The duty was reduced from fourpence to a penny in 1836 as a result of Radical pressure on the Whig Government of that later day, and the remaining ` taxes on knowledge ' were repealed in the course of the 'fifties and 'sixties.
The year that followed Peterloo and the Six Acts, the first of George IV as king, was the year of the Cato Street conspiracy and of the Queen's trial.
In February, Arthur Thistlewood, head of a gang of ` physical force' Radicals prevented by the Six Acts from raising disturbance in other ways, plotted to murder the whole Cabinet as they dined together at Lord Harrowby's in Grosvenor Square. The conspirators, over twenty strong, met in a loft in Cato Street, off Edgware Road, where they were attacked by the Bow Street runners. Half of them fought their way out, but all were arrested within a few days. The reaction in favour of Government was naturally strong, but, considering the enormity of the fact, curiously evanescent. Thistlewood and four of his accomplices were executed on the first of May, and by the end of June Ministers were more universally popular than ever before, on account of Queen Caroline. Yet the Cato Street conspiracy was almost as bloody in its intention as the Gunpowder Plot, and more so than the assassination plots against Charles II and William III, which had ruined the parties in whose interest they had been designed. One of the intended victims was the Duke of Wellington, who had saved the country five years before, and lived to be the popular demigod of Victorian England. If, then, Cato Street caused no such prolonged reaction and left no such tradition as Gunpowder Plot, Rye House and Turnham Green, it was partly because the Queen's trial supervened, and partly because the system of government for which the Duke and his colleagues stood was no longer so well rooted in any large section of popular opinion as the systems represented by James I, Charles II, or William III.
The Queen's affair, which swallowed up every other topic from June to November, was caused by the return from abroad of the new King's official wife, Caroline, unappeasably claiming her Royal rank. The King's reply was to induce his Ministers, in an evil hour for their good name, to set on foot divorce proceedings. The ' Queen's trial,' for adultery, took the form of a Bill of Pains and Penalties introduced first into the House of Lords, and conducted there by the examination of evidence as in a Court of justice. The chief witnesses were Italians of a low type, whom the British people believed to have been suborned. The principal one, Majocchi, broke down under Brougham's cross-examination, and blundered out again and again Non mi ricordo (' I don't remember ') a phrase that for a generation to come was current coin in England.
Non mi ricordo was fatal to the good repute of the ' existing establishment in Church and State.' The Radical cartoonists, strong in the rising genius of Cruikshank, battened on the shapeless figure of George IV, who was represented to his subjects in every abject guise that malice could suggest, now lolling on the couch as an Oriental voluptuary, now stammering out Non mi ricordo at the bar of public opinion. And though Caroline was in a sense the ' heroine,' her low vulgarity was in itself an argument for republicans and levellers. As the Queen's trial dragged its foul length along week after week, an utter contempt for their rulers, Royal and other, sank deep into men's hearts, and prepared the way for change.
Whether Caroline was guilty or not no man can with certainty say. On the other hand, it is certain that her marriage had been a legalised bigamy, since her husband had previously been married in secret to Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was still alive. It is also certain that George had cast off Caroline almost at once, before he had any ground against her, and that he had lived and was still living in open relations with a number of other women. Our ancestors passionately determined that a wife who had undergone such treatment, whether she were innocent or guilty, should not be divorced by such a man. The national instinct for fair play was too much for the loyalty of many Tories who had supported the Government on the Six Acts. The Cabinet found itself more nearly in collision with the whole nation than any Government since James II. Only the withdrawal of the Bill of Pains and Penalties saved the State from convulsion.
After Peterloo and Cato Street the Queen's trial comes like low comic relief in a too sombre tragedy. Indeed it did much to restore the good humour of the nation. All classes of a divided society had united in a common enthusiasm. And it helped the cause of reconciliation that the Cabinet had been disgraced and defeated; its working-class victims could laugh and feel themselves avenged. And so, with the help of a few years of better trade, the more liberal policy adopted by the Tory Cabinet after Castlereagh's death was launched on less troubled waters.
The history of the Queen's trial illustrates the law of political hydrostatics, that if the current of public opinion is denied course through constitutional channels, it will make its way out by the sewers. There had been other instances of such abnormal excitement, as when in 1809 the country had risen in fury to support the charges against the King's son, the Duke of York, then Commander-in-Chief, of selling military commissions through his mistress, Mrs. Clarke. These unsavoury controversies, and many others, now well forgotten, gave proof of a savage hatred of the Royal family, due in equal degrees to the bad private character of George III's sons, and to the political position of George III and George IV after him as acknowledged chiefs of the extreme Tory party. The all-important change that afterwards took place in the popularity of the Royal family, was due alike to its retirement from political leadership and to its changed private record.
But for the present the Crown still made and maintained Ministries. The Tory Cabinet survived the measureless shame and unpopularity of the Queen's trial, because George IV, much as he hated the Ministers for bungling the Bill of Pains and Penalties, hated the Whigs still more for voting against it, and for their association with his arch-enemy, Brougham, who had conducted the Queen's case in the Lords with astonishing eloquence and freedom.
Now the choice of the Prime Minister effectually rested with the King. The Whigs only mustered some 170 votes in Opposition, and largely owing to the rotten boroughs and the limited franchise, could not materially increase the number at election time. They would do nothing on the one hand to court the King for office, and for the considerable number of votes in the House which was the perquisite of his Ministers as such. Nor on the other hand would they lead the Radicals in an agitation for a really extensive reform of Parliament. Ten years later, under another King, the Whigs did both these things at once, and only so managed to maintain themselves in office long enough to remodel the Constitution, heavily weighted in the interest of their rivals.
The Whigs had become for a while more lukewarm in the cause of Reform than in 1797, when they had voted 91 strong for household suffrage. The fact that they had held office even for a few months in 1806 - 7 on the basis of leaving the anti-Jacobin system of society and politics untouched, had compromised the future of Reform inside their body, and increased the mutual suspicion between Whigs and Radicals. Many old Whig families who had left the party in the days of Burke and the French Revolution, but had never had the heart to leave Brooks's, came back to the party fold, and the alliance with the Tory Grenvilles continued until 1817. Such connections rendered it difficult for the Whigs to adopt a popular programme. Indeed if they had ever taken office again in a Coalition such as 1807, their connections with Reform would have been snapped altogether, and the historic purpose for which fate was preserving them would have been frustrated.
Lord Grey, in 1819 - 20, refused to take the field in a campaign for Parliamentary Reform, because, as he wrote to his confidant, Lord Holland, the proposal of any large measure would split the Whig party. He declared indeed that he him-self favoured the abolition of no less than a hundred of the rotten borough seats, and was sure that any smaller proposal would fail to arouse popular enthusiasm without which no Reform had the least chance of being carried. Partly because he knew that so large a proposal would break up the Parliamentary party that he led, partly because he shrank from open alliance with the disreputable Radicals, partly because he preferred domestic ease and studious leisure at Howick, the Whig chief put off the hour of action. In refusing to give the country any more positive lead than a denunciation of Peterloo and the Six Acts, Grey left the Tories another decade in which to make good, and, under Canning, Huskisson and Peel, they did not let the opportunity slip.
The ground was cleared for change in the Tory counsels by the death of Castlereagh in 1822. The great British statesman who had done more than any European diplomat to bring about Napoleon's fall and to establish peace in Europe, had identified himself in his last years with the anti-Jacobin domestic policy in its final stage of decay. He had beaten Napoleon and made a peace that gave us security for a hundred years, but he had introduced the Six Acts into the House of Commons. When he died, it was the less fortunate side of his career that was uppermost in men's minds, but to us at a century's remove it seems the less important, as it was certainly the less enduring. His death by his own hand was hailed by most of his poorer fellow-countrymen with revengeful glee, which found voice in the horrible cheers that greeted his coffin as it passed into Westminster Abbey.1 Posterity can look more impartially at the whole career of a man who was some-times right and sometimes wrong, but who had in the main wrought greatly and beneficently, and had always, according to the light that was in him, devoted powers of the first order to his country's service.