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He gave a silent vote against the continuance of the tax, and had the satisfaction, for the first time in his life, of finding himself in the majority.
Yet, though Lord John was present in the division on the income tax, and though he spoke from time to time during the session of 1816, the part which he took in the Parliamentary campaign was a very slight one. In 18r6, indeed, no accurate record was taken of the manner in which each member of the House of Commons discharged his duties. But on important occasions the votes of members are given in ‘ Hansard.’ Thirty‘two of these lists are preserved for 1816 ; but in only three out of the thirty-two does Lord John’s name appear. After March 18, when he voted against the property tax, he does not seem to have taken part in any division. After March 20, when he paired with another member, his name drops out of the Parliamentary record.
It is, perhaps, now too late to determine the causes which induced Lord John thus to withdraw from the heat of the Parliamentary campaign. Whether he was simply distrustful of his own powers, or disheartened with his party’s weakness; whether he was meditating on other pursuits or seeking information in other countries; whether, as there is reason to think, his health was suffering from the late hours and close atmosphere of the House of Commons—these are questions which cannot now be decisively answered. However that may be, the future leader of the House of Commons, during the first few years of his Parliamentary life, was one of its most irregular attendants.
In one sense, however, his absence had not much significance. The year 1816 is undoubtedly memorable in history, but the circumstance for which it deserves to be chiefly recollected is not the withdrawal of the income tax, but the state of the weather. It was one of those abnormal seasons which, when they occur, make many people believe in the gradual deterioration of the English climate. It is probable that so cold and wet a summer had not been experienced since the end of the seventeenth century; and it is certain that so unfavourable a season did not recur for another sixty years. The harvest almost universally failed, and the price of wheat necessarily rose.
The distress which this state of things occasioned may readily be conceived. At the commencement of the year the poor were suffering from low wages and want of work, but they derived some compensation from the price of food. The average price of wheat in January was only 52:. 6d. a quarter. But, when Parliament separated in June, this single benefit had ceased. The price of wheat had risen to 74s. rod. and it continued to rise till it amounted in December to 103s. a quarter. A quarter of wheat is required in the year for food by each member of the population who lives on wheat. A working man, with a wife and three children, found the cost of his food alone suddenly increased from £13 2s. 60’. to £25 15:. a year; and in 1816 there were few working men who were able to command £2 5 15:. a year, error. a week, for their labour.
It could hardly be expected that the poor would remain patient under trials which were almost unparalleled. Riots occurred in the agricultural counties of Eastern England. The Luddites, as they were termed, broke the machinery in the manufacturing districts; and the Radicals, embodying their political views in a charter, andthus obtaining the name of Chartists, summoned a meeting in the East of London, at which language of a reprehensible character was used, and a serious riot occurred. The task of the Ministry was, in these circumstances, undoubtedly diflicult. The first function of government is the preservation of order; and men cannot be allowed to destroy property and imperil life because they happen to be starving. It was therefore both the right and the duty of Ministers firmly to repress disturbance and enforce the law. But the Liverpool Administration made the grave mistake of assuming that riots, which were attributable to distress, were occasioned by a fixed intention to subvert the constitution, and, instead of relying on the ordinary law, in.sisted on resorting to a policy of coercion.
The Administration, indeed, felt it necessary to strengthen its hands by preliminary inquiry, and, in the commencement of the session, secured the appointment of secret committees in both Houses of Parliament. Lord Sidmouth, as Secretary of State for the Home Department, desired the services of the Duke of Bedford on the Lords Committee. The Duke availed himself of the excuse which an attack of illness afforded him to refuse to serve; but he took occasion to express to Lord Grenville, who unfortunately shared the alarm of the Minister, the grave apprehension with which he regarded the prospect of coercive legislation. The Duke thought that the disturbances were due to distress; and that the discontent of the people was aggravated by the refusal of the Government, dur— ing the previous year, to inquire into the state of the country, or to concede any of the reforms which moderate men demanded. He went on to say, in a passage which is well worth quoting—
I cannot help being reminded by the present situation of the country, as described by you [Lord Grenville], of the state of Ireland during the period of my short administration in that country. Very serious disturbances existed in several parts of Ireland. Mischievous and ill-disposed persons took advantage of these disturbances, and endeavoured to inflame and increase the discontent. I was strongly urged, and even by some with whom I was associated in the government of Ireland, to resort to strong measures, and put in force the Insurrection Act. I felt convinced in my own mind that the ordinary operations of the law, administered in a continued spirit of temper and firmness, were sufficient to put an end to the disturbances, and the result justified my opinion. Before I quitted Ireland I had the satisfaction to write to Lord Liverpool, then Secretary of State, that the country was perfectly restored to a state of peace and subordination without in the slighest degree compromising the dignity or the safety of the Government, and it is with no small degree of pride that I reflect that my conduct on the occcasion met with your entire approbation,
Unfortunately the wise and statesmanlike views which were expressed in this letter found little sympathy in political circles. The secret committees of both Houses reported as they were expected to report; and Ministers, strengthened by these reports, proceeded to introduce Bills into Parliament for the prevention of seditious meetings, for the protection of the Regent’s person, for the better prevention of attempts to seduce persons serving, and for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. The last of these measures forced Lord John from the retirement which he was perhaps contemplating. He spoke on February 26, 1817, on the first reading of the Bill ; and his speech was more forcible, was reported with more care, and contains more matter of personal interest, than any he had yet delivered.
I had not intended [he began] to trouble the House with any observations of mine during the present session of Parliament. Indeed, the state of my health induced me to resolve upon quitting the fatiguing business of this House altogether. But he must have no ordinary mind whose attention is not roused in a singular manner when it is proposed to suspend the rights and liberties of Englishmen, though even for a short period. I am determined for my own part that no weakness of frame, no indisposition of body, shall prevent my protesting against the most dangerous precedent which this House ever made.
After alluding to an argument which had been used in the debate that ‘the danger was great because the distress was great,’ he went on to point out that the Habeas Corpus Act had been first enacted at a time when a plot had been
discovered, which, though it has since been mentioned only as an instance of credulity, bore at the time a most alarming appearance. Not less than 200 persons, many of them of the first rank, were accused of conspiring the death of the King. The heir-presumptive of the throne was supposed to be impli_ cated in the conspiracy, and foreign powers were ready with money and troops to assist in the subversion of our constitution in Church and State. Yet at this time did the Lords and Commons present for the royal assent this very Bill of Habeas Corpus, which for less dangers you are now about to suspend. \Ve talk much—I think a great deal too much—of the wisdom of our ancestors. I wish we would imitate the courage of our ancestors. They were not ready to lay their liberties at the foot of the Crown upon every vain or imaginary alarm.1
These passages afford a good example of Lord John Russell’s earlier manner. They are remarkable for correctness of language and for vigour of expression. Sir Francis Burdett, in complimenting him upon his speech, declared that ‘the name of Russell was dear to every Englishman; and it was peculiarly gratifying to hear the noble Lord, with so much manliness and ability, supporting those rights in the defence of which his revered ancestor lost his life.’2 But the protest of Lord John was as ineffective as that of his father. The Bill became law, and Lord John, either from consideration for his health, or from despair of success for his principles, again withdrew from his Parliamentary laboursfi
Lord John’s withdrawal was so complete that his voice was heard only once within the walls of the House of Commons during the next two years; and in the interval he frequently expressed to his friends his determination to abandon political pursuits altogether.
It was such a conversation which suggested to Mr. Moore the following ‘ Remonstrance ’ :—
Whatl thou, with thy genius, thy youth, and thy name i
1 Hansard, xxxv. p. 722. The speech is also published in Lord J. Russell's Spur/m" and Derpatcher, i. 177.
a Harvard, xxxv. 746.
3 It has been frequently stated that Lord John actually resigned his seat and did not return to Parliament till after the general election of 1818. But this is not the case. He spoke once again in the Parliament of 1812. Hanrard, xxxviii. 104.