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The Conservative Party in the 1830s: a contemporary view

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 extract below gives a description by a sympathetic writer of what Tamworth Conservatism meant to its adherents in the years between Peel's 1834-5 administration and the electoral triumph of 1841. The author, Sir John Benn Walsh, Bt., (1798-1881), politician and pamphleteer, of Warfield Park, Berks, was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, High Sheriff of Berkshire 1823 and Radnorshire 1825; Conservative M.P. for Sudbury 1830-4. 1838-40, and for Radnorshire 1840-68; and Lord Lieutenant of Radnorshire 1842-75.

Sir J. B. Walsh, Chapters of Contemporary History (1836), pp. 77-8, 87-9

I have sometimes heard it asked, What is a Conservative - what does the word mean? I think that I can give a short and clear definition. A Conservative is a man attached upon principle to the English Constitution, to the Established Church to our mixed institutions. Well, but so is, or at least so was, a Whig of the old school. There is another characteristic - a Conservative is one who, having this loyalty to the Constitution, believes it is threatened with subversion by the encroachments of democracy, and is prepared to defend it against that danger. The Conservative party, therefore, includes all those shades and degrees of political opinion, from the disciple of moderate Whig principles to the most devoted champion of ancient usages, who agree in these two Points - attachment to King, Lords, Commons, Church, and State, and a belief that there is a pressing danger of these institutions being overborne by the weight of the Democracy.

… I trust that the preceding remarks may convey to my readers juster ideas of the composition, principles, and objects of the Conservative party, than they would derive from the polemical articles of the ministerial journals. They consist in these positions; - That the Conservative party is not identical with the Tory party, - that it includes, indeed, the Tories, but that it is a more comprehensive term, and that the basis is a wider one; - that the Conservative party may be defined to consist of all that part of the community who are attached to the Constitution in Church and State, and who believe that it is threatened with subversion by the encroachments of democracy. That this definition does not necessarily suppose an abstract horror of all innovation, or an illiberal and contracted view of politics. That, on the contrary, the opinions and feelings of the great body of the Conservatives in this country arc liberal, candid, and generous. That they do not oppose a dogged resistance to the progress of improvement, but that they are prepared to proceed upon the conviction, that they gain many steps in advance by adopting much that has already been accomplished. They consider that the march of democracy, with its eternal warfare against all that exists, is a retrograde one.

With regard to its numbers, and social position, the Conservative party does not consist alone of the Peerage, - of what are invidiously called the 'privileged orders', or of the political adherents of former ministries, - it embraces a vast proportion of the numerical amount of the population. It extends into every quarter of the empire, and every class of the community. It rests upon the support of the majority of the property of the country, and it is sustained by the attachment to the National Church.

I do not wish to underrate all the formidable influences opposed to it; the radical and democratic spirit prevalent in the large town constituencies in England, and still more in Scotland; the hostility of the Dissenters; the power of Mr O'Connell in Ireland, and the organized opposition of the Roman Catholic population. Admitting, as I fully do, that we are in the unfortunate condition of a nation divided upon questions of vital importance into great opposing parties, and distracted by all the bitter animosities, which the keenest party strife can occasion; I yet claim for the Conservatives the rank of a national party, comprising a vast section of the people.

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