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Whigs and Liberals, 1838

Taken from Norman Gash, The Age of Peel (London, Edward Arnold, 1973), with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.


The general election of 1837, made necessary by the accession of Queen Victoria, was the hardest-fought between the first and second Reform Acts, resulted in further losses to the government, especially in the English counties; and their majority was reduced to about thirty. A feature of the election was the defeat of several well-known Radicals – Hume in Middlesex, Roebuck at Bath, Ewart at Liverpool, Col. Thompson at Maidstone, and Hutt at Hull. On the government side of the House the central moderate elements had been strengthened at the expense of both conservative Whigs and extreme Radicals. This emergence of a more united Liberal party was reflected in various shifts of cabinet policy between 1838 and 1841, notably allowing the ballot to be open question (i.e. one for which government Supporters were allowed to vote) and accepting the need for a revision of the Corn Law. The Westminster Review founded Jeremy Bentham and James Mill in 1824 as the organ of the philosophic utilitarians, represented a sophisticated intellectual radical viewpoint in politics.


Westminster Review, xxviii.8-10 (1838)

The result of the late elections enables us in like manner to say, England is moderate-Radical. Of the different shades of opinion composing the majority (those who are returned under Tory colours we do [not] speak of) the Whigs are considerably reduced in strength, and we have lost a few of the more decided Radicals; among whom it will be discreditable to the nation if Mr Roebuck at least does not immediately find another seat. But the moderate Radicals have even increased in numbers. Several adherents of the Ministry have made a move towards Radicalism, and of the new Liberal members (very numerous in this Parliament), the moderate Radicals form a large proportion. Such persons compose the great majority of the Reform party in the higher and middle classes. They consist chiefly of men who have not till lately been active politicians, or whose opinions have advanced with events. They have hitherto not approved, or not responded to, any attacks on the Ministers; and, in all their movements, they are anxious to carry the Ministers with them. They are decidedly for King, Lords, and Commons. They have generally not yet made up their minds to the necessity of any organic change in the House of Lords. They are not for Universal Suffrage. Many of them are for the Church; not such as the Tories have made it, but yet the Church, such a Church in reality as we already have in pretence; far less radically altered in its constitution than we deem necessary, both for religion and for good government. But these men, so little inclined to extreme opinions, are universally for the Ballot. They are for shortening the duration of Parliaments. They are for abridging the expenses of elections; simplifying the qualifications of voters; abolishing the rate-paying clauses. They are for abolishing, or consolidating into districts like those of Wales and Scotland, the small borough constituencies. They are for abrogating the Corn-Laws. Friends as many of them are to the principle of a Church Establishment conformable to what they conceive to be the theory of the Church of England, they recognize none of the conditions which render such an institution legitimate in the monstrous anomaly calling itself the Irish Church; a Church forced upon a conquered people by a handful of foreigners, who confiscated their land, and for ages hunted them down like beasts of prey.

We affirm, and if the Ministers do not know it the first few divisions will teach it them, that these are the opinions generally prevailing among the new liberal English members. These men represent the average strength of the Reform spirit; those who go further being in number and weight a full set-off against those who do not go so far.… Let Ministers remember, that no party ever for long together recognized its hindmost men as its chiefs: the leaders are always either those who precede the rest in making up their minds and pointing out the course to be followed, or those who can at least be counted upon for ad and giving effect to the opinion of the majority.

The Ballot is necessary to their continuance in power; it is demanded by the almost unanimous opinion of their supporters; and the country is now aware that they themselves have no rooted aversion to it, no objection but such as these considerations ought to remove. We have hitherto regarded Lord John Russell as its chief opponent. We should never think of addressing a man of Lord John Russell's character with any argument appealing solely to his interest; but from the revelations in his speech at Stroud (which have raised him in the opinion of all reasonable men much more than his previous opposition to the Ballot had lowered him) we now know that his objection was never one of principle.… Why, then, has he, since opposed it? For a reason not necessarily disparaging to him: he thought that a statesman, who has to consider not only his own conviction, but the rules according to which masses of men may most wisely regulate their collective conduct, should give a fair trial to one great change, and allow its full effects to unfold themselves before beginning another. To this we cannot object: but what is to be considered a fair trial? The majority for the Reformers has dwindled from three hundred to twenty-six, and at last to twelve: is it necessary to the sufficiency of the trial, that this last remnant should disappear?

…You have the power; you have it perhaps for the first time; certainly for the last. You have it, if what your adherents say be true – if you hold the option of dissolving the Parliament. With the knowledge that you have that power, together with that of creating Peers, you might perhaps carry the question even in this Parliament. But if it fail, throw yourself once more upon the electors.


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