British History - The break-up of the Tory party, 1827-30 - Illness of Lord Liverpool Ministry and death of Canning - The Wellington Ministry - O'Connell and Catholic Emancipation - Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway - Origins of London University.
( Originally Published 1922 )
For five years England had been guided by the genius of Canning, and seldom has so much brilliancy and so much wisdom combined to produce such happy results. The constitutional medium through which that genius worked was the loyal friendship of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, one of those statesmen whose chief art is to hold together Cabinets of imperious and discordant colleagues. Formerly he had been under the influence of Castlereagh, but he had since passed under the spell of Canning, and had more than once been of service to him by persuading Lord Eldon and the Duke to remain in office, though they objected to the whole current of the government policy. But in February i 827 a paralytic stroke removed the Prime Minister from the political scene. The Tory party could no longer avoid choosing between Canning and Wellington, for neither could possibly serve under the other. Though George IV had lately intrigued to get rid of Canning, he now felt his mastery and had no resource but to call him to the head of affairs. Wellington, Eldon and Peel left the Cabinet.
Canning was dying, and he knew it. But like his master before him, he rallied his failing energies to serve his country in the crisis that was upon her. He formed a Cabinet of his own followers: Huskisson stood by him, and Palmerston, whose cynical common sense began to read failure in the pro-gramme of what he called ` the stupid old Tory party.' Canning also gave a few minor places to Whigs, since he would have to eke out a majority by the help of Whig votes in the Commons. The group system had replaced two-party politics, which only the Reform Bill was destined to revive. For the moment the Whigs were as much divided as the Tories. But whereas the Tories were divided on questions of policy which time would render more acute, the Whigs were split on a question of tactics which Canning's death was certain to resolve.
Lord Lansdowne and Lord Holland, Lord Durham and Henry Brougham, and the bulk of the Whigs, young and old, supported Canning out of gratitude for what he had done and to prevent a Wellingtonian reaction at home and abroad. But Lord Grey and his young lieutenant, Lord Althorp, the most popular man in the House of Commons, both refused to sanction the coalition. Grey was partly influenced by that distrust of Canning as an ` adventurer,' which was traditional among the elder statesmen on either side, but which none of the younger men could understand. With more reason, Grey complained that Canning had received the support of the Whigs without making the smallest concession, even on those points where he agreed with them like Catholic Emancipation. That great question was still to be left on the shelf, while the Government would actively oppose the abolition of the Test Act, still more any measure of Parliamentary Reform.
The instinct of Grey and Althorp against merging the Foxite tradition on these terms in the Canningite branch of Toryism, was perhaps justified by the fact that three years later the Canningite Tories came and merged themselves in the Whig party and so enabled the Reform Bill to be carried. Canning himself was to the very last as illogically in love with the rotten boroughs as the other great liberal Tory, Peel ; and he had ten times Peel's popularity at that time. If, therefore, the Whigs had accepted Canning as Liberal leader, and if he had lived, there would have been no Reform Bill. His death, like the last wonderful five years of his life, takes its place in a series of strokes of destiny which cleared the way for the peaceful emergence of the new order.
Canning died on August 8, 1827, in the bedroom at Chiswick where Fox had passed away. There had been no time for his Ministry to be tested in practice, but by the fact of its formation the Canningites had been marked off as a distinct group, opposed to the High Tory party. After a brief attempt by the incapable ' goody Goderich ' to construct a Canningite Government without Canning, Wellington came back to form a Ministry, nominally of Tory reunion. But the time for reunion had gone by. Perpetual friction in the Cabinet was too much for the patience of the Duke, who was no Liverpool. He brusquely seized an opportunity to get rid of the Canningites, when their leader Huskisson made an offer of resignation not seriously meaning to be taken at his word.
By this proceeding, more soldierly than politic, the Duke condemned himself to govern Great Britain and Ireland through the agency of the High Tories alone. He had not calculated what that might imply. As soon as he had purged his administration of nearly every man who believed in Catholic Emancipation, he found himself suddenly compelled to emancipate the Catholics.
The political history of this period is bewildering to the student, and rich in paradoxical happenings, because, while the old parties are breaking up, ` the spirit of the age,' and the constant pressure of the unenfranchised from without, overwhelm from day to day the policies of the nominal holders of power. The scene has all the confused inconsequence of a great military retreat, when no one knows what anyone else is doing, and positions are taken up only to be abandoned. Whereas Canning, the year before, had thought it necessary to pledge his Cabinet to prevent the repeal of the Test Act and to leave Catholic Emancipation alone, fifteen months after the Duke took office both relieving Bills had become law under the aegis of an ultra Tory Ministry.
Lord John Russell's Bill to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts, which prohibited Dissenters from holding National or Municipal Office, passed the Commons by so great a majority that Peel and Wellington thought it wise not to oppose it, and even negotiated its passage through the Upper House. The blow to the spirit of Church ascendancy was theoretic and moral, for in practice a yearly Indemnity Bill had been passed to pardon any Dissenters who had broken the law by taking office, and a wholesale reform of Parliamentary and Municipal representation would be needed before the Church monopoly could be seriously affected and Nonconformists obtain a share of power at all commensurate with their rapidly increasing numbers, wealth and influence.
The Repeal of the Test Act had been accepted with a good grace, largely owing to the moderation which the bishops had shown at Peel's instance. But the admission of Roman Catholics to Parliament would be a far more serious blow to the feelings of ' the Protestant and High Church party,' as the Tories were called in those days before the Oxford movement. ' No Popery ' was the one thing that still gave them popularity with large sections of the public. Yet Peel and Wellington in 1829 not only abandoned the policy in the faith of which they had been bred, and in vindicating which they had risen to power against all rivals, but they outraged all the precedents and expectations of party loyalty by themselves as Ministers forcing Catholic Emancipation through Parliament. Right or wrong, it was a course which only two very strong and disinterested men would have taken. Nothing that could have happened inside this island could ever have induced them to adopt it. It was dictated to them by the belief that no one else could win the consent of the King and the Lords to Emancipation, and that only if Emancipation were actually passed could England avoid the shame and danger of a civil war in Ireland.
Pitt's policy, or rather the policy which George III and the Tories had forced upon Pitt's weakness, had done everything to exasperate and nothing to reconcile Irish opinion.1 The Union, unaccompanied by Catholic Emancipation, extinguished the last hopes of Grattan, the great Protestant statesman who had shown England the way to solve the Irish question before it was too late. ` The Irish Demosthenes,' as a broken-hearted exile, won a kind of posthumous reputation in the alien Parliament to which he had been led captive by the Act of Union. He lived till 182o, but during the last twenty years of his life he knew that his day was over. The forces through which he had sought the reconciliation of creeds and races were played out the religious toleration and indifferentism of eighteenth-century thought had been succeeded in Ireland by Orange and Catholic fanaticism, and in England by an Evangelical propaganda against the Popish danger, which had spread from the mob to the rulers of Church and State.
The man who in the early years of the new century stepped into Grattan's place as Irish leader was a very different man, appealing to very different forces. Grattan, a Protestant, had appealed to the patience of Irish Catholics, to the wisdom and generosity of Irish and English Protestants. O'Connell, a Catholic, appealed to his own people to close their ranks and to extort through fear what had been denied to justice.
The Irish peasant democracy had lain crushed and dormant during the eighteenth century, until in the last decade spasmodic local convulsions had shown that it was about to awake. O'Connell aroused and organised its religious and social passions. British statesmen, both Whig and Tory, complained of this as a crime, but nothing less formidable would have gained attention for Irish wrongs in the island to which Pitt had moved the Irish justice-seat.
Though compelled to adopt methods of agitation, O'Connell was a man of peace and order, desiring to reconcile England and Ireland within the bounds of the Empire and by constitutional means. But he knew that the terms of reconciliation would have to be extorted. He proposed to extort them, not by the spasmodic violence which was the usual resort of each village when left to itself, but by organising the national will through a machinery which he himself devised. The Catholic Association, founded in 1823, became nothing less than a regimentation of Catholic Ireland, under the priests as officers, with O'Connell as Commander-in-Chief. Though everyone in secular authority was outside the movement and hostile to it, the unanimity of the people was terrible. Such unanimity is seldom found, except where the national life is comprised in a single class of ill-educated peasants, in whom the instincts of herd morality have been fortified by centuries of oppression.
English policy had indeed removed all the intermediary classes which usually form a bridge between an unpopular government and its discontented subjects. The whole official class by law had to belong to an alien religion, and by tradition had alien sympathies in almost every respect. The landlords, the natural leaders of a rural community, were nearly all of them Protestants, mostly holding their possessions as a foreign garrison intruded in the place of the native owners by the sword of Cromwell and of William.
Nor did the position of the Irish landlord among his tenantry resemble that of the English landlord in economic any more than in religious and political matters. The typical Irish landlord had never been an ' improver.' He did nothing for his estate. He neither built nor repaired the cabins, sheds or fences of his tenantry. He was simply a consumer of rack-rent. Except in certain districts of Ulster, the tenant had no customary ` right.' There was no class of big farmer growing up as in England, to govern the rural proletariat in his own and the landlord's interest. On the contrary, the farms in Ireland were getting smaller, in the eighteenth century, by subdivision into potato patches of half an acre each. This encouraged the population to increase, without reference to the real productive power of the soil or the reliability of the potato crop. The result was periodic famine. Before the great famine of 1846 and the subsequent emigration to America, there were more than eight millions of people in Ireland, nearly twice as many as are now supported by much improved agricultural methods.
One of the arguments that had been advanced in favour of the Union of 1800, had been that British capital would be attracted to Ireland. This hope had not been fulfilled. And during the half-century between the Union and the famine era, the British Parliament, which had undertaken the duties of its Dublin predecessor with so light a heart, entirely neglected the economic aspect of its new functions. The government was content to apply rigorously the English land laws to totally different economic and social conditions. It did nothing to develop the economic resources of the country, or to fight poverty and over-population by any expedient, other than that of supporting by military force the wholesale evictions ordained by landlords anxious to clear their estates.
Such was the state of affairs in Ireland during the period of O'Connell's influence. The evicted had not even the provision of the English poor law to save them from starvation. Meanwhile, as it were to emphasise the connection of religion with these evils, the peasant had to pay a tithe of his produce to the minister of a religion that he regarded as heretical. Till O'Connell arose, agrarian crime was the only form of protest. It led to the ` proclaiming ' of districts and the maintenance of order by an army larger than that which garrisoned India.
Yet even under such conditions a kind of feudal loyalty attached many of the Catholic peasants to those of their Protestant landlords who were not absentees, and who had acquired the careless good nature of old Irish society. At any rate no one had dreamt of tenants voting against their landlords at election time, until O'Connell determined to use the strength of the Catholic Association to show once for all that political control of the peasant had passed from the landlord to the priest. In 1828 Vesey-Fitzgerald was seeking reelection for the county of Clare. He was one of the most popular landlords in Ireland and he had voted for Catholic Emancipation. But O'Connell stood against him, the peasants marched to the poll with the priests at their head and the day was carried against the whole landlord influence of the county. A peculiar and powerful blend of clericalism and democracy had destroyed feudalism in Ireland.
O'Connell's election was legal, but as he was a Catholic the law prevented him from taking his seat. That was the situation which convinced Peel and Wellington that Catholics must be admitted to Parliament. By passing Catholic Emancipation they averted the danger of civil war. But though for this limited purpose they had the moral courage to sacrifice their party's welfare and their own consistency, they were not magnanimous enough to do it with grace and so turn it into an act of reconciliation. They seemed determined to show that it had been extorted, which was exactly the impression they should have striven to remove. Insults were heaped upon O'Connell in the hour of his triumph. He was forced to seek re-election on the paltry ground that his election, though legal, had taken place before the passage of Catholic Emancipation. When the first Catholic barristers obtained silk under the new Act, O'Connell was passed over, possibly on the ground that ' the whale is left out from the fishes in a Natural History Museum.' The liberator was a generous and kindly man, but he felt his treatment bitterly; he said of Peel words that no one but an Irishman would have found, ' His smile was like the silver plate on a coffin.'
No Catholic was promoted to the Bench, and everything was done to show that the new law did not mean a change of system in Ireland, and that the national leaders were not in fact to be admitted to a share of power. But the new law enabled O'Connell to gather a number of followers in the House of Commons, who henceforth exerted a direct and disturbing influence on British politics. Ireland was no nearer than before to self-government, but she had obtained some real representation at Westminster.
By passing Catholic Emancipation the Duke had alienated from his person and government the very elements on which he could best have relied to hold the fort against the coming Liberal assault. Old Lord Eldon, the Oxford dons, the country parsons, and the more old-fashioned squires raged against the King's government and the victor of Waterloo, with the fury of men betrayed. Not till they had pulled down Wellington and put Lord Grey into Downing Street did the High Tories feel that they had been avenged. The Ministry of Tory reunion had taken just a year in breaking up the party into three mutually hostile sections of Canningites, Ministerialists and Eldonians. The Duke, who had driven the Canningites into opposition in 1828, showed as much contempt in 1 829 for the indignation of the squires and parsons as he showed in 1830 for the demand of the ' middle and industrious classes ' for Reform. With his soldier's mind and his strictly administrative way of dealing with political problems and forces, he unwittingly cleared the ground for the revival of the Whigs and for the passage of a much larger measure of Reform than had seemed remotely possible at the time of Canning's last illness.
In September 1830 the Duke attended the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool Railway. He was little suited to grasp the significance of the occasion, for he disliked inventions ; it was largely due to his lifelong conservatism in this respect that British troops went to the Crimea armed with weapons precisely similar to those which had been used at Waterloo. Huskisson was also present, as behoved the member for Liverpool who had warmly supported the line in Parliament. He stepped- out of the train on to the rails, to shake hands with the Duke whom he had not seen since their quarrel two years before ; not realising in time the danger of his proceedings, he was knocked down by one of George Stephenson's engines. The dying statesman was taken up and carried away at the pace of thirty-six miles an hour, although when Stephenson had given evidence before the House of Commons, members had thought him crazy for claiming that one-third of that pace would be possible.
The events of this day, so tragic in depriving the country of Huskisson's services,1 proclaimed to all the world the advent through steam locomotion of a new economic era. Steam-ships were already beginning to ply the waters. But this day registered the conquest of the land. For thirty years past, inventors had been working at the idea of using steam for traction, as it had already been used for pumping mines and turning machinery. At first it had seemed that the ' steam coach
would use the macadamised highways of the country without need of rails. Several of these primeval motors made experimental journeys along English roads during the Napoleonic wars. But they went no faster than waggon-horses and could only draw a twentieth of their own weight. The issue was decided when the mining industry, already accustomed to the use of rails to enable horses to drag heavily weighted coal trucks, employed the genius of George Stephenson of Tyneside gradually to perfect a steam-engine that gave the supremacy to the rail over the road. In our own day the coming of petrol has renewed the rivalry of road with rail.
The connection of this new development with politics was felt by contemporaries both on its material and its symbolic side. Archibald Prentice, a typical Manchester man of the time, active in all that caused his city to arrogate to itself the leadership of England, thus writes of the day of Huskisson's accident:
' The opening of the Manchester an and Liverpool Railway was one of the events of 1830, which was not without its influence, in future days, on the progress of public opinion.
The anti-corn law agitation was wonderfully forwarded by quick railway travelling and the penny postage. Even in 1830 the railway promoted the cause of Reform. It was an innovation on the old ways of travelling, and a successful one ; and people thought that something like this achievement in constructive and mechanical science might be effected in political science. It brought, besides, a little proprietary borough, which nobody had ever seen before, into full view, I recollect when passing over it for the first time, I said to a friend - " Parliamentary Reform must follow soon after the opening of this road. A million of persons will pass over it in the course of this year, and see that hitherto unseen village of Newton ; and they must be convinced of the absurdity of its sending two members to Parliament, whilst Manchester sends none." '
It was certainly a strange coincidence that one out of the half-dozen rotten boroughs which was all that the northern half of England possessed, should have lain plumb on the new line from Liverpool to Manchester. But with or without the sight of Newton to stir the indignation of the cotton-lords and their bagmen, a mere thirty miles of railway could at best be no more than an additional argument for reform. Stephenson may perhaps be said to have abolished the Corn Laws in 'forty-six, but in that case Watt and Macadam passed the Reform Bill of 'thirty-two.
A new institution, highly characteristic of the new age, and of Henry Brougham's multifarious activities as the in-formal leader of ` opposition ' and progress in the country, was the foundation under his auspices of University College, London, the ' godless institution in Gower Street.' Non-conformists and secularists, excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, had drawn together to found an undenominational teaching centre on the basis of keeping theology out of the curriculum, and having no religious tests for teachers or taught. The tendency of the embryo university was towards modern studies, including science. An exclusively classical curriculum was identified in men's minds with the close educational establishments of the Church and State party. ' Utility ' appealed more to the unprivileged city population. It was an educational event of the first importance, but at the time its real significance was lost in sectarian and partisan recrimination, and not a little good-humoured satire of Brougham and his ' Cockney College.'
Next year the Church followed suit, and founded in rivalry King's College in the Strand, as another non-residential college, teaching on modern lines. In 1836 the two rivals were formed into the federal University of London. In the last twenty years of the century, when new Universities were founded up and down the country in the great industrial centres, it was not Oxford and Cambridge that served as model, but London, with its non-residential colleges and degrees for women.