Catholic Emancipation and Wellington's Ministry
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
But the great surrender [by Wellington] was on the question of Catholic Emancipation, upon which George III had taken so obstinate a stand in 1801, and in regard to which George IV and his brothers had endorsed their father's attitude. The grievance in England was a minor one, chiefly because the Roman Catholics in that country, as in Scotland, were only a fraction of the population, and of these a considerable proportion enjoyed a wealth and a social position which enabled them to exercise a degree even of political influence.
But in Ireland more than three-fourths of the population, were Catholics, by whom the Protestant ascendency was felt as an intolerable burden and a monstrous injustice.
Daniel O'Connell and the Catholic Association
The refusal of Catholic Emancipation at the time of the Union perpetuated the hostility between Irish Catholics and Protestants, and afforded a just ground for complaint that Irish consent to the Union had been obtained upon false pretences. In course of time the leadership in the Catholic agitation had devolved upon Daniel O'Connell, an orator of extraordinary power, an opponent of the doctrines of the French Revolution, who insisted upon the principles of constitutional agitation and habitually repudiated all appeals to violence and force, though his own fervid appeals to the emotions of an emotional race were not without an inflammatory influence. O'Connell had organised the great Catholic Association, which in theory at least restricted itself to legal forms of agitation and owned no connection with secret societies.
Alarmed by its influence, Parliament had in 1825 pronounced it illegal and endeavoured to suppress it; but it had only been reconstituted under forms which brought it again within the law, though its activities were restrained. Now the landlords had endeavoured to extend their own influence by nominally converting numbers of their tenants into "forty-shilling freeholders," who were entitled to exercise the franchise and on whose unfailing support they hastily counted. Their blunder was decisively demonstrated when in 1828 the Catholic Daniel O'Connell was returned at the head of the poll in an election for County Clare, although his religion disqualified him from sitting in Parliament.
The triumph was the greater because the election had been conducted in a perfectly orderly manner. It was easy to understand the meaning of the election, the intensity of the feeling to which it pointed, and the grave dangers which threatened if that feeling were persistently ignored. The Duke and Peel were converted to a belief not that Catholic Emancipation was in itself a desirable thing, but that a worse thing, armed rebellion, was the probable alternative. They chose the lesser of two evils, and in 1829 a bill removing nearly all the Catholic disabilities was brought in by the Government and carried and O'Connell took his seat at Westminster.
In 1830 George IV died. His influence on political life had not been prominent since the early days when the regency question nearly suspended Pitt's career. But his personal character had lowered the monarchy in public estimation to an unparalleled degree. The country had not become republican in sentiment, but if it had not been able to feel some respect for George's successor the permanence of the monarchy would at best have become exceedingly doubtful. Happily the heir to the throne was William, Duke of Clarence, since the Duke of York had preceded his brother to the grave; and William was at least an honest man, not unpopular in his character of the Sailor Prince, who had abstained from flagrant offences against the sense of public decency.
He was already sixty-five years of age, and during his brief reign the Crown recovered something of its lost prestige, which was to be completely restored by the young girl who was his heir presumptive. It was generally understood that the new king was at least comparatively in sympathy with Liberal ideas. The cause of Catholic Emancipation had been won by Ireland, not by England, where it excited no enthusiasm. Not so was it with the great question which now confronted the ministry. Half a century before, the popular demand for Parliamentary reform had been gradually forcing its way to the front, though still held back by the antagonism of the governing classes and the private interests vested in rotten boroughs. Both Chatham and his son had advocated it; but the French Revolution came and swept it out of the sphere of practical politics.
There was no room for questions of reform when the guillotine was at work in Paris or while Britain was at grips with her great antagonist. But with the peace came a change. If ministers brought up in the atmosphere of reaction against Jacobinism remained persistently opposed to any extension of political power to the masses who were still shut out from it, or to a diminution of the control exercised by the dominant class, there were still Whigs who had gone out into the wilderness with Fox, and there was a new generation of Whigs who saw no advantages in a system which was calculated to keep them permanently out of office.
Moreover, as the memories of the French Revolution faded, the pre-revolution doctrines of William Pitt began to resume their sway over intelligent minds, while the masses who were still shut outside the gates had learnt to believe that the remedy for their grievances lay in the acquisition of political power, for which their demands grew daily more insistent. Year after year since 1820 Lord John Russell had brought forward in the House of Commons resolutions or proposals for disfranchising rotten boroughs and increasing the representation of the counties, and for the enfranchisement of the towns which were rapidly expanding in consequence of the new industrial system. Russell was regularly defeated, and, while Canning lived, the Canningites held by their leader in opposing reform, although that attitude was not easy to reconcile with some of their avowed principles. With his death their opposition weakened.
Then in 1830, within a few weeks of the accession of William IV, the cause of constitutional reform received a new impulse from outside. In France a practically bloodless revolution was accomplished; the absolutist king, Charles X, was forced to abdicate, and the "citizen king," Louis Philippe of Orleans, was raised to the throne. The manner in which the revolution was accomplished served in no small degree to allay the alarms of those who anticipated excesses of the old type as the inevitable concomitants of any departure from the existing system, any shifting of the centre of political gravity. Apart from what was called the "July Revolution," it had already become clear that the demand for reform could not long be ignored, and by that revolution much latent antagonism to it was removed.
Fall of Wellington
The battle began at once. Before the meeting of Parliament in November every one believed that some measure of reform was inevitable. The King's Speech, however, made no mention of the subject. Lord Grey, the leader of the Whigs in the House of Peers, who had been prominent among the advanced Whigs ever since the days of Pitt's first administration, referred to reform as a measure of prime necessity for diminishing public discontent. The Duke in reply declared in effect that the existing system could not by any possibility be improved upon, that the country had entire confidence in it, and that he himself should at all times feel it his duty to opposfe any measure of reform. But even this declaration did not suffice to rally to the support of the Government the extreme Tories, who considered that they had been betrayed over Catholic Emancipation. The Government was defeated on a side issue, whereupon the Duke and Peel both resigned, and Grey was invited to form a ministry.
It is curious to observe, that the statesman who ultimately carried the Reform Bill was himself of an intensely aristocratic temperament. Of the new administration four members only were in the House of Commons, and of those four one, Lord Palmerston, was an Irish peer, and another, Lord Althorp, the heir to an English earldom. The Lord Chancellor, however, Henry Brougham, was a peer only because he was made Lord Chancellor. It is to be remarked that the Marquess Wellesley was now in political opposition to his brother, and was associated with the new Government, although not in the Cabinet. A full half of the new ministry were Canningites.
The change of government appears to have given to agitators the impression that the administration would be too weak or too sympathetic to punish disturbances which broke out in several of the southern counties. They were, however, promptly disillusioned by its vigorous action, and by the prosecution and punishment of the ringleaders. It was unfortunate that the Whigs were seriously weakened by the want of any capable finance minister, since Huskisson was unhappily killed in the summer of 1830 at the opening of the pioneer railway line between Manchester and Liverpool.