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The general apprehension of war was not favourable to the great measure of Reform on which Lord John had set his heart. He gave notice of its introduction for the 13th of February. But on the IOth Lord Jocelyn, who by marriage was nearly connected with Lord Palmerston, asked him whether it was his intention to proceed bond fide with the measure. Lord John replied that he intended not only to introduce the Bill on the promised day, but to fix the second reading for the 13th of March. He carried out the first part of this programme; but the House, which by this time was thinking of nothing but war, received the proposal with apathy, while Lord Palmerston spared no effort to promote the postponement of the measure. For a time it seemed possible that the struggle between the two men might lead to the dissolution of the Ministry. But the increasing tension of the Eastern question, and the necessity of providing for the war, induced Lord John partially to give way, and at the end of February he told Lord Aberdeen that he was prepared to postpone the Bill. The only members of the Cabinet who seem to have had serious doubts on the propriety of this decision were Sir James Graham and Lord Aberdeen himself. The Prime Minister, however, while expressing his anxiety for the success of the measure, placed himself frankly in Lord John's hands,' and Lord John on the 3rd of March announced his decision to postpone the second reading till the 27th of April. The announcement was received with almost universal satisfaction, though one or two members could not resist the pleasure of eliciting a short-lived cheer by striking at Lord John. Thus Sir John Shelley, who represented Westminster, either said, or was understood by Lord John to say, that the proposal of the measure was a shain ; while Mr. Disraeli contrasted a phrase of the Prime Minister's, that ‘the Government
* Lord Aberdeen added, ‘I wish that I could feel as much at ease on the subject of the unhappy war in which we are about to be engaged. The abstract justice of the cause, although indisputable, is but a poor consolation for the inevitable calamities of all war, or for a decision which I am not without fear may prove to have been impolitic and unwise. My conscience upbraids me the more, because seeing, as I did from the first, all that was to be apprehended, it is possible that by a little more energy and vigour, not on the Danube, but in Downing Street, it might have been prevented.’
in introducing the Bill had been influenced by a feeling of personal honour, with a ‘sententious dogma’ of Sir George Grey that a statesman was not to be hampered by feelings of personal consideration arising out of pledges which he may have given. Lord John, in repelling Sir John Shelley's insinuation, declared that he felt utter indifference to it, coming as it did from a man ‘who has no right to speak in the name of Reform ; ' and, after enumerating the battles which he himself had fought in the cause, added, “Does the hon. gentleman think he has a right to treat me ’ and the House drowned the rest of the sentence with its cheers. Of Mr. Disraeli he said very happily he ‘Faggoted his notions as they fell, And, if they rhymed and rattled, all was well.''
And then, rising to a higher strain, he went on— Sir, I should be ashamed of myself if I were to prefer a concern for my own personal reputation to that which I understood to be for the interests of my country. But it seems to me that the character of the men who rule this country—whether they be at the moment in office or in opposition—is a matter of the utmost interest to the people of this country, and that it is of paramount importance that full confidence should be reposed in their character. It is, in fact, on the confidence of the people in the character of public men that the security of this country in a great degree depends. In writing to Lord John the following morning the Queen expressed herself as ‘particularly pleased ' with this language. But, in truth, it was hardly necessary for Lord John to lay down such a doctrine. Men might, may did, criticise his faults of manner or his mistakes of policy. But those who approved, and those who condemned, would have alike agreed that in character he was, like Bayard, “sans peur et sans reproche.' The temporary postponement of the Reform Bill, however, did not terminate the existing difficulty. The drift which was ever bearing the Ministry towards war increased in force; with the approach of war the disinclination both of the Cabinet and of Parliament to deal with Reform became constantly stronger, and Lord John had to face the prospect of a fresh postponement. Writing confidentially to Lord Aberdeen on the 23rd of March, he said—
' The lines are from Absalom and Achitofthel, and are applied by Dryden to Doeg. -
There can be no doubt that the great majority, perhaps nearly the whole, of the two Houses of Parliament wish for postponement till another year. But, in order to enable you and me to take that course, we ought to be able to assure Reformers that the question is only one of time. . . . I feel strongly that we could give no such assurance, because, 1st, with two out of three of the advocates of postponement, the question is not one of time but of principle. They use the plea of war now, and will easily find a plea as good, if not better, next year. 2nd, No one will venture to say what may be the state of the country next year. War usually brings with it distress– distress, discontent ; . . . and the discontent may assume the shape of a demand for a much larger measure of Reform.
After considering the possibility of dividing the Bill, and of proceeding with only a portion of it, a compromise which he concluded was impracticable, he went on–
The next course is one which I should gladly adopt. It is that the Government should give up the Bill for the present, and that I should retire. I am pledged to Reform ; and, what is much more, I think a period of increased taxation a fit period for giving enlarged franchises. Others who have not that opinion, and are not so deeply pledged, might honourably and usefully continue the Government. I hope this course may be adopted, and I could then, out of the Cabinet, yield at once to the general desire. The only other course remaining would be to move the second reading of the Bill on the 27th of April. It involves a probability of defeat — a choice of continuing in office, thus defeated, dissolving Parliament, or resigning upon defeat. But, while I point out this course as an alternative, I must repeat that the course which I should prefer would be that I should leave the Government, alone. All the departments are filled, I should not leave the army or the navy uncared for ; and, during the first year of the war, the leadership of the House of Commons would be easy for my successor.
Lord Aberdeen, replying on the following day, said—
You have stated very clearly the different courses which it is open for us to pursue, and the advantages—or rather disadvantages—attending on each. But there is a preliminary consideration, which may render any choice impracticable. When you propose to the Cabinet . . . to read the Bill a second time . . . I suspect that you will be met by some of our colleagues with a decided objection to your proceeding any further with the Bill at all. I am further of opinion that this view will be shared by a majority of the Cabinet, and that you will be prevented from moving anything as a member of the Government. You have not taken this contingency into account, which, nevertheless, I regard as certain.
Lord John replied on the 25th–
I had considered the state of the Cabinet, but it did not seem to me a sufficient reason for not proposing the course which I thought the best. I had not, indeed, considered that the majority of the Cabinet would object to go on at all with the Reform Bill. If they do so, I can only object on my part to going on any longer with them.
So stood matters on the 25th of March. During the next few days Lord Aberdeen ascertained that, while the prosecution of the Bill would lead to the immediate retirement of Lord Palmerston and Lord Lansdowne, any other course would involve the resignation of Lord John and Sir James Graham. The secession of the two first would deprive the Government, so he thought, of the necessary efficiency; the loss of the two last would virtually destroy it. He told Lord John on the 4th of April that, though he had anticipated that the Queen would be affected by the aspect of affairs, he found that these feelings prevailed to a greater degree than he had expected ; and he asked Lord John to consider whether under the circumstances it were practicable for him to postpone the Bill. Lord John replying on the 6th said—
The more I think of the alternative the less I like it. . . . In making the declaration of postponement, any promise I could make would be disbelieved ; and I should not believe it myself—then how could I hope to persuade others? Such being the case, it remains to be considered whether I can withdraw the Bill, making no promise for the future. I will consider this point carefully.
Two days' consideration did not overcome Lord John's scruples, and on Saturday, April 8, he wrote to Lord Aberdeen and resigned his seat in the Cabinet.
On the meeting of the Cabinet, however, Lord John, urged from all sides to postpone the Bill, and to withdraw his resignation, yielded to the unanimous wish of his colleagues. Sir Charles Wood wrote to him—
Chesham Place: April 10, 1854. Dear Lord John, We had got into conversation on other matters so much yesterday before you joined us that I had no opportunity of doing what was the main object of my ride—to thank you not only for what you did, but for the manner in which you did it, on Saturday. I think the general feeling of your colleagues was one of gratitude for the sacrifice which you made of your own feelings and wishes for what they believe to be a great public object. You may be assured, so far as my own opinion goes, and that which I can collect from others, that, so far from having impaired your character or means of usefulness, you will have raised both most essentially by the course which you have taken. Your position will be strengthened comparatively and positively as we go on. . . . —Yours ever, C. WOOD.
But the sacrifice was very great. Lord John frankly told the Queen, who had expressed to him her warm approval of his conduct, that he was affected by deep feelings of mortification on reviewing the proceedings of the Cabinet, at which,' he added, ‘Lord Aberdeen was the only person who behaved with a due regard to the honour of the Administration ; and, in the comparative quiet of the Sunday, he concluded that a Cabinet in which Lord Palmerston's objections to Reform had prevailed was not one in which he ought to remain. He communicated his scruples to Lord Palmerston on Monday morning, who endeavoured to combat them, adding very generously—
If you have brought your mind to the conclusion, in which I certainly do not participate, that our respective views and opinions on the question of Parliamentary Reform make it impossible for us to continue members of the same Cabinet, I must claim for myself the right to be the one whose retirement should remove the difficulty. And it stands to reason that this ought to be, because it is evident that the head of the Government and the majority of the Cabinet incline to your views rather than to mine ; and it is therefore demonstrable, with reference both to time present and to time future, that I am the person who must necessarily give way. . . . My retirement would be the more easy because the Government would not thereby lose, in a moment of European crisis, a leader of the House of Commons, a Minister of Foreign Affairs, or a Minister of War, three offices in regard to which it might justly be urged that any change at the present moment would be injurious to the public
service. . . . —Yours sincerely, PALMERSTON ALMERSTON.