Sivut kuvina
PDF
ePub

tion.*

less apparent, as we have all along maintained, that the Duke of Wellington did perfectly right in declaring resolutely against Reform at all in November 1830, during the continuance of the mania produced by the French Revolu

That disastrous event totally changed the probable effects of the measure, by totally changing the spirit and desire in which it was demanded. Members for the great towns were no longer sought from the rational and constitutional desire of having their interests, wants, and situation, represented in the legislature, but from the fierce and insatiable passion for democratic ascendency. Any concession, how small soever, in presence of such an enemy, was evidently as perilous as any retreat or abandonment of positions in presence of a numerous and desperate foe. The

moment the signal of retreat before such an enemy, even on the most inconsiderable question, is given, their audacity and fury increase tenfold. The example of Catholic Emancipation, the concessions of Louis XVI, and those of William IV., and their obvious consequences, will assuredly not be lost on posterity.

The great misfortune was, that when the Duke of Wellington made this wise declaration, at that critical time, which was founded on exactly the same principle as Mr Pitt's stand against Reform, after the rise of the infernal spirit of 1793, he was not supported by the Conservative party generally ; but that they took that opportunity, seeing him hard presssd, to unite with the partisans of Revolution for his overthrow. There was the dreadful mistake. Seeing that, when the danger approached, he had lowered the neutral colours which he had lately shown, had again hoisted the British standard, and was preparing to defend the old vessel to the last extremity, they should have

* What the Duke did say on this occasion was as follows :"I am thoroughly persuaded that England possesses, at this moment, a legislature which answers all the good purposes of a legislature, in a higher degree than ever has been found to answer in any country in the world; that it possesses the confidence of the country; that it deservedly possesses that confidence, and that its decisions have justly the greatest weight and influence with the people. Nay, my lords, I will go yet farther and say, that if, at this moment, I had to form a legislature for this country, in possession of great property of various descriptions, ough, perhaps, I should not form one precisely such as we have, I would endeavour to produce something which would give the same results--namely, a representation of the people, containing a large body of the property of the country, and in which the great landed proprietors have a preponderating influence.”-Speech in Parliament, Nov. 2, 1830; Maxims and Opinions of Wellington, 219, 220. VOL. I.

N

It was

cordially succoured him in the generous resolution. In the presence of danger, the boldest course is frequently the most prudent. Can there be any doubt that, if the Conservative party had all rallied round this illustrious leader on this perilous occasion, as they did round Mr Pitt on the similar crisis in 1793, the Revolutionists would have been quelled, and the Constitution saved ? Had half the Tories joined the ranks of Opposition when Jacobinism first arose on the 10th August, would not 1792 have been 1832 ? this fatal defection at the critical moment, and not the declaration against Reform, that threw power into the hands of the Whigs,—in other words, ruined the monarchy.

We have now performed, with painful feelings, but scrupulous impartiality, a necessary duty,—that of tracing the errors of the Conservative party, which have contributed to bring the nation into its present disastrous state. There remains a more grateful task ; that of following, with just admiration, their heroic conduct in adversity,—appealing to the justice of posterity from the violence of present times, and consigning, in merited terms, the destroyers of the Constitution to the execrations of ages. Here, also, we have every wish to be impartial, and we trust we shall be so. The anxiety of the moment is over ; the Reform Bill has become the law of the land, and, as such, is entitled to demand the willing obedience of every British subject, but the means by which it has been brought about have become the subject of history ; and the character of its authors, after having passed through the ordeal of political discussion, now stands before the bar of posterity for eternal judgment.

Earl Grey, as all the world knows, ascended into office under the pledge of Reform ; and every man, of whatever party, must have felt that he was bound to have carried that pledge into effect. He stated, however, that his ideas on this subject had undergone a material alteration since the first ardour of youth had passed away ; that he would now stand or fall by his order; and that whatever Reform he introduced should be renovation, not innovation, and be based on the fundamental principles of the Monarchy, pot rested on any speculative or theoretical ideas of improvement. On this footing he stood pledged to the nation ; and, in their anxiety to see this great question settled on a satisfactory basis, they overlooked errors which would have proved fatal to any preceding ministry. The total failure of the budget, not a shred of which was left to stand in the legislation of the country, and the signal defeat on the Timber Duties, were a sufficient indication that they held their places merely on tolerance, and that the expectation of their Reform measure alone upheld their tottering administration.

At length the Reform Bill was ushered in on 1st March 1831 ; and it must be fresh in the recollection of every one with what breathless astonishment it was received by all classes in the country. It is hard to say whether the Whigs, the Tories, or the Radicals were most struck with amazement. It is now well known that, had it been brought to a vote on the first reading, it would have been thrown out by an immense majority, and such a proposition never probably again been tendered to a British Parliament. Time, incessant discussion for fifteen months, and the subsequent melancholy march of revolution, have habituated our minds to this, as they do to all other democratic changes; but when the fearful inroad on the Constitution was first announced to minds as yet unused to the fatal rapidity of revolutionary advance, it seemed as if the earth itself was about to swallow up its offspring.

Talleyrand has said, that “the convulsions consequent on that speech alone would not be allayed for thirty years.' And the remark was that of one well versed in the springs of revolution, and familiar with the restless spirit which had compelled him to swear allegiance to thirteen different constitutions. There are certain projects which, by the common consent of mankind, must never be so much as seriously broached, if we would avoid throwing society into convulsions. The division of property, the democratic ascendency of the lower orders, are subjects wbich never yet were seriously entertained by the populace, without anarchy being the consequence, and society being conducted through a long period of suffering to military despotism. But these projects are usually pressed on an unwilling legislature by the lower orders; and the enthusiasm of Hope, the contagion of Desire, are checked by the slender prospect afforded of prevailing in such a struggle against the government. But on this occasion the government itself took the lead in the dreadful step.

A change confessedly greater than had been attempted by Cromwell, the Long Parliament, or those who expelled James II., -an alteration which was nothing less than a demolition and reconstruction of the whole constitution of Parliament, a total destruction, without any equivalent, of 168 seats, and a transference of the immense power they conveyed to a new and highly democratic electoral body, a majority of whom inhabited houses rented at below L.12 a-year, and who were nearly all in the urban interest, was seriously brought forward by the Ministers of the Crown, and supported by the whole weight of the sovereign power, and the whole influence of the Whig nobility.

It will probably never be known, certainly not during the lifetime of the present generation, what the real intentions and serious expectations of Ministers were in bringing forward this enormous innovation. That they expected it to be thrown out by a great majority, has since been confessed in his place in Parliament by the most honest and candid, and not the least able of their number, Lord Althorp. That they were completely ignorant of its real tendency, and, in particular, entirely in the dark as to the practical operation of the £10 clause, has been abundantly proved by the vigorous and repeated, though unsuccessful attempts, which they made to get quit of it, when tied to the stake by the Radical party. Did they never expect that it would be carried, but put it forth like an Agrarian law, not in the idea that it could ever become part of the institutions of the realm, but that it would prove the source of never-ending disquiet to their successors ? Did they expect that it would prove an everlasting thorn in the side of the Conservative rulers of the realm, and give themselves a rallying word, a war-cry, by which they might at all times thereafter assemble the mobs of towns round their banner? However this may be, it is certain that it was not only proposed, but seriously insisted on, by the united influence of the Crown, the Radicals, the Whigs, and the Ministerial aristocracy.

Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party committed what is now known to have been a great mistake, in not taking advantage of the feelings of astonishment and horror which the proposal at first generally excited, to have it at once thrown overboard. Had this been done, the Constitution would probably now have been safe. But the error, great as it was, was a natural one, and only showed how little we then knew of the principles of revolution, in which dear-bought experience has since made us such adepts. He conceived, and nine-tenths of the men of sense in the country conceived with him, that the enormity of the change would awaken a feeling of unanimous resistance to it in all the respectable or influential classes ; that the boroughs threatened with disfranchisement would instantly send instructions to their representatives to throw out the measure, and that the county voters, seeing that they were to be overwhelmed by a mass of tenants and ten-pound

freeholders, would do their utmost to resist the change. Those more familiar with the principles called forth in revolutionary changes feared, with what experience has since proved to have been a well-founded apprehension, that a different principle would come into operation. This principle is the contagion of kindred feeling awakened in similar ranks, by the prospect of an enormous benefit to their class of society; and the impossibility of expecting that the electors were to resist the tempest of innovating passion, the deluding prospects, and the inflammatory considerations, which had already turned the heads of many of the ablest men, the greatest proprietors, and the noblest blood in the realm. They recollected that the French Revolution was achieved by the junction of 49 of the nobility and 127 of the clergy to the Tiers Etat, in direct opposition to the interests of their own orders, and that in a few months they received the reward of their insane conduct by having all their property confiscated to the service of an ungrateful state. The result soon proved that their apprehensions were too well founded, and that in a similar crisis similar effects may be anticipated in all ages and countries of the world.

The Reformers have frequently referred to the result of this appeal to the people, as decisive evidence of the generality and depth of the feeling in favour of Reform which previously existed in the country. There never was a more complete mistake.

It only demonstrated that a tempest was excited by the prodigal offer of political power to the

« EdellinenJatka »