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Parliament for the sake of obtaining what one of them called ‘ new laws ’ for a ‘new state of things.’
If Ministers were alarmed at the condition of the country, the Opposition was concerned at the prospect of fresh measures of coercion. It was evidently no time for rising Whigs— ' the friends of civil and religious liberty—to pass their days in sweet dalliance with beautiful Italian ladies in Genoa, and Lord John was accordingly urged to return home. But the letters in which he was urged to return were not merely the persuasive summonses of the Tapers and Tadpoles of the Whig party anxious to secure one more vote for their leader. They form a remarkable testimony to Lord John’s position.
The first of them was from Sir James Mackintosh ; 1—
MY DEAR LORD JOHN,—Parliament is, you see, to meet on the 27th of next month, and you are more wanted than anybody, not only for general service, but because your Reform must be immediately brought forward, if possible as the act of the party, but at all events as the creed of all Whig Reformers?
The second was from Mr. Allen :-
You will have seen from the newspapers that Parliament is to meet before the end of November. I don’t know why I should write to you ; but Lord William presses me to urge you to return by that time. It will be a very important session. Ministers have various gagging measures to propose, and it is most essential for the character and credit of Oppositon that they should consider well what line to take on the occasion. It is most important also, in my opinion, that, while they declare most explicitly and unequivocally against the Radical Reformers of all descriptions, they should not allow the opportunity to pass of bringing forward specific measures of their own in favour of Parliamentry Reform. But, if such a movement is to be made, you are the person to make it, and with that view it is most desirable that you should be here, not for action only, but for deliberation. Mackintosh
1 It was on his return in 1819 that Sir J. Mackintosh addressed Lord John in the words of Virgil :— Ecquid in antiquam virtutem animosque viriles Et pater Eneas et avunculus exeitat Hector? 2 I do not quote the rest of this letter, which is printed in extenso in Lord I. Russell's Spree/1e: and Despair/us, i. 17!.
is completely of my mind in this respect, as you have seen by a letter which he wrote you from this House by last post. Brougham is still in Cumberland, but he will be in town before 'the end of the month, and, from what he has seen in the North, he is strongly impressed with the truth of both the propositions I have laid down. . .
The state of the country is very alarming. The funds low, the revenue declining; alarm in the class of proprietors, discontent and disaffection among the non-proprietors; one party ready to sacrifice their liberties for security from popular excesses, and another party ready to rush headlong into civil war for imaginary rights to which they have no claim and which would ruin them if obtained. Yours ever faithfully, J, ALLEN.
Before these letters reached Lord John, he had already made up his mind to return. Writing on the 14th of October from Voltri, he said to Mr. Moore :—
There is a talk of Parliament meeting in November, and I should not like to be far off. Pray join me here as soon as you can: if not here I shall be at Paris, but not later than the beginning of next month. . . . I had two letters yesterday, one from a Whig saying it would come right if Ministers did not sabre the people, another from a Tory in great alarm at the meeting of Parliament. But we must do our duty, abuse us who may.
And he added from Genoa on the 9th of November :—
I am much disappointed at finding you do not come, as I have waited some days longer than 1 should have done in hopes of seeing you—longer even than the day you were to have been here by the original plan. But you have done quite right not to leave Rome in a hurry. It was not built, and cannot be seen in a day.
I am just setting oil“ for London. Mackintosh has written me an oily letter, to which I have answered a. vinegar one; but I want you to keep me up in acerbity. . . . Yours ever, J, R.
I cannot say how sorry I am to lose you. D—n the Reformers and Lord Sidmouth too for this.
Lord John did not lose much time on his journey home. Parliament met on the 25th of November, and Ministers at once announced the introduction of the famous measures which are known in history as the Six Acts. But, before the debate on the Address was concluded, Lord John gave notice that, on the 14th of the following month, he would bring forward resolutions for the disfranchisement of Grampound, and for the prevention of corruption.
On the eve of moving these resolutions, Lord John wrote to Mr. Moore :—
I hope you think we \Vhigs have done as well by the constitution as we could. But some of us have shown much alarm, particularly Lyttelton and Morpeth. Plunket makes powerful and vigorous invectives against liberty and law,
Iam going to-day to make a little motion for Reform. The violent will not care for it and the other side will throw it out and so my public attendances will cease for the present. There can be little doubt that in a few years. unless there is a sudden change of public opinion, the forms of government will be almost entirely changed.
While the Six Acts were before the Commons, such a reflection was not unnatural. Yet the change which was coming was the reverse of that which Lord John was anticipating, and the first note was to be sounded on the motion which he was thus proposing.
In fact, the condition of Grampound was so corrupt, and its corruption was so notorious, that it was no longer possible either to defend or ignore it. Other places in the West of England had, indeed, a reputation as evil. But Grampound was peculiar in its misfortune, since Sir Manasseh Lopes, who had purchased the borough, had quarrelled with the rival candidate, had been indicted for bribery at Exeter, and had been sentenced to pay a heavy fine and to suffer two years’ imprisonment.
Lord John’s knowledge of constitutional history enabled him to prove that historical precedent was in favour of organic Reform; and that he was only desiring to revert to ‘ the wholesome practice of altering and enlarging the basis of representa
tion which had continued till the end of the reign of Charles II.’ He accordingly asked the House to affirm: 1. That all boroughs, in which gross and notorious bribery and corruption shall be proved to prevail, should cease to return members to Parliament; 2. That the right so taken away should be given to some great town or to the largest counties; 3. That it is the duty of the House to consider of further means to detect and to prevent corruption in Parliamentary elections ; and 4. That it is expedient that the borough of Grampound should be disfranchised.1
Such was the moderate proposal of Reform which Lord John introduced in 1819. Lord Castlereagh rose, after the motion had been seconded, and declared that the noble Lord had debated the question in a manner that was highly creditable to his judgment, and which naturally disposed his mind to make any practicable concession. He consequently promised that, if Lord John would withdraw his resolutions, and bring in a Bill to disfranchise the borough of Grampound, he would not throw the least difficulty in his way. Lord John, of course, at once accepted an offer which was more favourable than he had anticipated; and the debate closed amidst an unexpected unanimity.
Such was the first step towards organic Reform taken in the nineteenth century. Yet some time was yet to elapse before even Grampound was to pay the penalty for its misdoing. For,
1 It was in this speech that Lord John, arguing for moderate against Radical reform, said, ‘ The principles of the construction of this House are pure and worthy. If we should endeavour to change them altogether we should commit the folly of the servant in the story of Aladdin, who is deceived by the cry of “ New lamps for old." Our lamp is covered with dirt and rubbish, but it has a magical power. It has raised up a smiling land. . . . And, sir, shall we change an instrument which has produced effects so wonderful for a burnished and tinsel article of modern manufacture? No. Small as the remaining treasure of the Constitution is, I cannot consent to throw it into the wheel for the chance of obtaining a prize in the lottery of the constitutions.’ (Speeches and Despatclur, i. 198.) Years afterwards Lord John told Mr. Moore that the passage, when it was spoken, produced very little effect, though ‘ Brougham used to sneer a good deal at this image, saying “ Gentlemen who talk figuratively about lamps." ' (Moore's Memoirr, vi. 203.) Twelve years afterwards, however, it was quoted against its author by Sir Robert Peel, and suggested to ' H.B.' one-of his best caricatures.
before Lord John could introduce a Bill for its disfranchisement, an event occurred which abruptly terminated the Parliament of 1818. On January 29, 1820, George III. died; and on February 28, in accordance with the law which was then in force, Parliament was dissolved.
In the short interval which occurred between the death of the King and the dissolution of Parliament, Lord John took one more step in the direction of Reform. He asked for, and obtained, leave to introduce a Bill suspending the issue of writs to the three corrupt boroughs of Penryn, Camelford, and Grampound. The House of Commons not merely passed the Bill, but, on the suggestion of Mr. Charles Wynn, added Barnstaple to the list. Unfortunately, however, between the discussion of the Bill in the Commons and the Lords, the dastardly plot, which is known, in history as the Cato Street Conspiracy, was detected. The horrid design to murder the entire Cabinet provoked a strong feeling against the Reformers. Lord Eldon, speaking as Chancellor, declared that it was unjust to accept the Bill except on evidence, and that evidence tendered to the Commons could not be acknowledged by the Lords. Tory peers thus obtained atechnical excuse for leaving things as they were; and the corrupt borOughs of Western England were left for a little longer undisturbed.
In the new Parliament, which was elected in the spring of 1820, Lord John did not continue to represent his former constituency. On the requisition of the yeomen of Huntingdonshire, he stood and was elected for that county, where the retirement of Lord F. Montagu, uncle to the Duke of Manchester, had made a vacancy. Booted and spurred in the full dignity of a knight of a shire,1 Lord John resumed his seat in the House of Commons, and, on the first available opportunity, announced his intention of bringing in a Bill to disfranchise Grampound and to transfer the repre~ sentation to the borough of Leeds; vesting the franchise
1 In the beginning of this century borough members were not allowed to wear spurs in the House of Commons.