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'Shooting Niagara'

Cartoon from Fun, 12 October 1867

Shooting Niagara

With the passing of the second Reform Ac in 1867, Disraeli had led British democracy into 'an unknown world'. Many within the political and intellectual elite viewed the coming of mass politics with acute anxiety. Resentment spread amongst his Conservative peers. While revelling in the sense of victory Disraeli had given them, most felt beguiled into supporting a statute that, it seemed, would transfer political power to the uneducated masses. Literary commentators like Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) feared the onset of cultural barbarity, with 'high' culture being consumed by its popular antithesis.

This double-page cartoon by Henry E. Doyle (1827-1892) echoes the words of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) that 'Dizzy' was 'Shooting Niagara'. In his 1867 tract of the same name, Carlyle prophesised that household suffrage would bring 'new supplies of blockheadism, gullibility, brideability, amenability to beer and balderdash, by way of amending the woes we have had from our previous supplies of that bad article.'

Disraeli is depicted aboard his vessel - the 'Reform Bill'. Flying the flag of 'Victoria Regina' (Queen Victoria), he paddles the parliamentary parties against the prevailing current - blissfully indifferent to the democratic uncertainty brewing around him. As its neutralising rudder breaks adrift, the 'Bill' is 'irresistibly propelled' towards the Falls, and the 'immortal smash' envisaged ahead (Thomas Carlyle, Shooting Niagara: and After? (London, 1867).

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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