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THE REFORM BILL
(BLACKWOOD'S MAGAZINE, May, Aug. & Sept. 1831.]
EVERY person who has reflected on the past history of the world, must have felt that there are certain periods when all the ordinary principles which regulate human affairs seem to fail—when new and unheard-of passions agitate mankind—and society, instead of flowing on with the steady current of ordinary prosperity, seems to glide with “ the torrent's smoothness ere it dash below.” At such periods, the former motives of conduct lose their influence ; the prejudices, the associations of antiquity, are forgotten ; the oldest affections give way to new-born enthusiasm : national character itself is subverted ; states gray in
years are agitated by the caprice of childhood, or the passions of youth ; and whole generations rush upon destruction, in defiance alike of the lessons of experience and the dictates of wisdom.
Such a period was that commencing with Gracchus in the Roman Republic, and terminating with Cæsar. Democratic ambition then shook the state ; the steady and prosperous rule of the Senate was overthrown ; jealousy of the nobility blinded the plebeians to all the glories of their guidance ; popular vigour, admirable as a spring, tore the machine of society to pieces, when deprived of its regulating weight; the conquests of the armies were arrested; the horrors of civil dissension succeeded the triumphs of VOL. I.
the legions; and Rome itself, weary of bloodshed and decimated by proscriptions, sought under the despotism of the Empire that security which could no longer be found amidst the storms of the Republic. Not the arms of the barbarians, not the limits of the world, stopped the majestic career of Roman victories ; but the jealousy against the nobility, and the passions of the people. It was this which terminated the steady and uniform rule of the Senate, which brought popular ambition at once in contact with military power, and rendered even the name of liberty odious, from the remembrance of the suffering with which it had been attended. When Providence deemed it time to arrest the course of Roman conquest, and preserve alive in Scythian wilds the destined seed of European freedom, it required no avenging angel to perform the task. Human violence was equal to its performance ; it unchained the passions in the Forum, and the uplifted arm of conquest was stayed.
Another period, equally memorable both in the violence of its passions and the magnitude of its effects, is that of the Crusades. All the strongest and most deeply-rooted feelings of humanity were set at naught during those memorable conflicts. The affections of youth, the interests of manhood, the habits of age, were alike subverted; the ambition of centuries was forgotten ; the feuds of generations were healed ; the lion lay down with the kid, and the serpent with the dove ; estates held since the subversion of the Roman empire were alienated; the habits of family, the attachment to home, the ties of parents, the endearments of children, were obliterated ; and millions, blessed with all the enjoyments of life, voluntarily laid them aside to seek an entrance to Paradise through the breach of Jerusalem. Successive generations perished in the struggle ; the bones of Europe whitened the fields of Asia; and, after a century's exhaustion, and the completion of the purposes intended by Providence, mankind began to recover from their frenzy, and the ordinary motives of human conduct resumed their sway.
At a still later time, the commencement of the French Revolution was distinguished by an equally unaccountable mental hallucination, from the throne to the cottage. For many years preceding that memorable event, the whole established ideas of every class of society had been subverted. Fashion, the frivolities of which follow the temper of the times, had long indicated the change ; the light baubles which glittered on the surface of the stream were perpetually changing. Anglomania ruled the cabinet; English fashions were universal among the people. Disdaining all the ancient usages of their country, the French set themselves seriously to copy English folly in manners, and German discipline in the army; and while the nobility ruined their fortunes in feeble imitation of English racing, the affections of the soldiery were lost by the severities of Prussian punishments. Presently sterner feelings arose : the passion for change, always more or less allied to revolution, was transferred from trifles to realities—from changes in customs or amusements to subversion of institutions and overthrow of thrones. By a delusion which, but for recent experience, would have been deemed inconceivable, not only the people, but the nobility, were foremost in the innovating passion. The Government, with the universal applause of the country, aided the Americans to throw off the rule of England, without the remotest suspicion that the example of resistance might be contagious; and the young nobility made the theatre of Versailles resound with applause, when on the stage were uttered praises of republican equality, or execrations on the rule of kings, without conceiving it possible that their privileges could be endangered by such sentiments. The few sagacious men who foresaw the consequences of these extraordinary changes met with universal derision. The StatesGeneral were assembled amidst the unanimous transports of the nation ; the Age of Gold was universally expected from the regeneration of mankind; and all were astonished when, in its stead, the rule of iron commenced.
But, of all the delusions which have convulsed mankind, that which has now seized the British nation is the most extraordinary, and promises, in its future consequences, to be the most important.
The future historian, when he relates that a total alteration of the British Constitution was carried, at first by a majority of one only, but after a dissolution by a majority of 136, in the House of Commons, will ask what were the experienced grievances, the acknowledged faults, the irremediable defects, which called for so prodigious a change, and justified the repeal of institutions which had withstood the shock of centuries of experience ?
He will be answered, that this constitution was admitted, even by its adversaries, to be the most perfect form of government which had ever appeared upon earth : that it was not the work of theorists, or framed by those who could not foresee the changes of society, but had been moulded by the hand of Time, in correspondence with the successive wants of successive generations ; that under its provisions the interests of all classes were adequately attended to, and a due provision was made for the extension of freedom, with the growing intelligence of the people ; that the spring of democratic ambition was restrained by the weight of ancient possession, and the rigour of aristocratic rule tempered by the influence of popular representation ; that it combined the stability of aristocratic with the occasional vigour of democratic societies; that the liberties of the people had been gradually extended with the changes of time, and were never so considerable as at the moment of its abrupt dissolution.
He will ask, what were the national disasters which had produced this dissatisfaction at institutions in their internal effect so admirable ; what had been the defects which had soured the temper of the people ; what the lost provinces which had hurt their patriotic pride ; what the national humiliation which had inade them avenge upon their own government the disgrace of foreign adventure ?
He will be answered, that this irrevocable act was committed at the moment of the highest prosperity of Great Britain ; soon after the conclusion of its greatest war, and in the very zenith of its power and glory ; that the generation who destroyed the institutions under which their fathers had prospered, was that which had shared in the glories of Trafalgar and Waterloo ; that the British navy was then omnipotent on the ocean, and its standard victorious in every part of the globe ; that a hundred millions of men obeyed its laws, and it outnumbered the Czar of Russia as much in the number of its subjects, as it exceeded the Roman empire in the extent of its dominions ; that the sun never set on its domains, for, before his declining rays had ceased to illuminate the towers of Quebec, his rising beams glittered on the domes of Calcutta.
He will inquire what were the domestic grievances which had rendered men insensible to this weight of national glory; what the practical evils which defeated the purposes of the social union, and rendered an overthrow of ancient institutions desirable at any hazard ?
He will be answered, that the last days of the British constitution were the most beneficial in legislation, and the most prosperous in the country; that fifteen years of peace had healed the wounds of war, and augmented, to an unprecedented degree, the riches of the country ; that its citizens numbered all the sovereigns of Europe among their debtors, and enterprise over all the world was sustained by its capital ; that while all the other sovereigns of Europe had augmented their revenues since the peace of Paris, the British Government had taken twenty millions from the burden of its subjects; that its manufacturers clothed the world with their fabrics, and its commerce whitened the ocean with their sails ; that the exports of the country had never been so great, and its revenue never so flourishing; that, under all the difficulties arising from a contest of unexampled magnitude, a sensible reduction had been made, since the peace, in the amount of the public debt; that its agriculture, keeping pace with the wants of a rapidly-increasing population, had more than doubled its produce in half a century ; that its poor were prosperous, even in spite of the influx of innumerable settlers, arising from the barbarism of the sister island ; and that the paupers of England, maintained by a law of Christian charity, were in better condition than the peasantry of most other countries.
He will ask, what was the previous character of the people who, in such circumstances, and at such a time, hazarded all the blessings of their situation in quest of chimerical improvements ; what extraordinary vacillation, or love of novelty, made them incur so desperate a hazard ; and what example of beneficial change had occurred in their previous history, to justify so gratuitous and uncalled-for an alteration ?
He will be answered, that the people who, with their eyes open, and when fully warned of the consequences, took this extraordinary step, composed the nation in the world who had been most distinguished by their hereditary attachment to old institutions; who had founded their policy for eight